Carla Bruni: First lady of schmaltz

Carla Bruni is a self-styled femme fatale. So it's a pity that on her new album, the French President's wife comes across as simpering and weedy, says Andy Gill
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The Independent Culture

Sometimes, a confluence of celebrity circumstance reaches such a critical mass of PR fluff that the merest spark might cause it to flare up into a raging blaze of publicity. Such was the case when it was first revealed, late in 2007, that supermodel-turned-singer Carla Bruni was to date, then marry, the new French President Nicolas Sarkozy. And something along these lines, one suspects, was a significant factor in the sudden appearance, this month, of Bruni's third album, Comme si de rien n'était (As if Nothing Happened) little more than a year after its predecessor, No Promises.

That album did reasonably well, selling about 400,000 copies; but it was nowhere near as runaway a success as her 2003 debut Quelqu'un m'a dit (Somebody Told Me), which has so far shifted around two million copies – good business by any standards, and extraordinary business compared with the risible efforts of other supermodel singers, such as Naomi Campbell or Milla Jovovich. The 80 per cent sales plummet between first and second albums can be partly explained by the fact that No Promises comprised a selection of poems set to music – and that the poems were by English-language poets such as Yeats, Auden, Rossetti, Dickinson and De La Mare, about as sizeable a transgression as one could make in such a fiercely francophone culture.

Not that Bruni is French by birth, anyway: the daughter of a concert pianist and an Italian industrialist, she moved with her family to France in the early Seventies to escape the attentions of Red Brigades terrorists, who had threatened to execute her father. Inheriting her mother's love of music, young Carla was fluent on piano and guitar from an early age, and also developed a passion for literature, which led to her youthful attempts at songwriting. She began studying architecture at university, but gave it up to pursue the career in modelling that would make her a multimillionaire in her twenties, before swapping catwalk for concert hall in the late Nineties.

"Love," she has been quoted as saying, "lasts a long time; but burning desire, two to three weeks."

The former French Prime Minister Laurent Fabius was her first political conquest, before she met Sarkozy at a dinner party and was swept off her feet. She would not vote for him, she apparently told friends, but felt intense sexual attraction for him, using the headline-friendly phrase, "I want a man with nuclear power!". It subsequently transpired that the dinner party was no accidental liaison, but organised at Sarkozy's behest by a spin-doctor of his acquaintance: no fool he, clearly. Bruni's erotic interest in her new hubbie is one of the subjects covered on her new album, which is causing a mild froth among the normally imperturbable French establishment for the unguarded, even provocative terms in which she describes their love.

The first petit brouhaha came with a song called "Tu es ma came" ("You are My Junk" or "You are My Dope"), which analogises obsessional love as a kind of addiction, in lines like "My guy, I roll him up and smoke him". Although it was probably written before she met Sarkozy, the song nonetheless prompted an official complaint from the Colombian government last month for its comparison of romantic euphoria to the effects of Colombian cocaine – not, the Colombians doubtless believed, the most tactful of opinions for the French first lady to be offering at a time when their forces were seeking to rescue a French-Colombian politician from the Farc guerrillas. Imagine Tony Blair dumping Cherie – or better still, Gordon Brown dumping Sarah – in favour of Courtney Love, and you'll get a new insight into the yawning gulf in attitudes still separating us from our continental cousins.

Whatever the provenance of "You are My Dope", there's no avoiding Sarkozy's position as the subject of "Ta tienne" ("I am Your Yours"), Bruni's billet-doux to her new spouse. This is a corker of a song, the kind of embarrassment that could shrivel careers to dust, or kill off one's prospects of being taken seriously as quickly as, say, dumping a weather-girl and taking up with a Cheeky Girl. "I give you my body, my soul and my chrysanthemum," sings Carla, cryptically, before going on to describe the French President as "my orgy... my folly... my blessed bread, my charming prince", and admitting that "I, who always sought fire, I am burning for you like a pagan woman". Cripes! A pagan woman with a chrysanthemum, eh? That must have gone down a treat in such a staunchly Catholic republic. If, by "chrysanthemum", Carla means what I think she means.

These aren't the only potentially controversial aspects of Comme si de rien n'était. On another track, "La possibilité d'une île" (The Possibility of an Island), Bruni borrows a lyric from the book of the same title by literary enfant terrible and sauce-pot Michel Houellebecq, whose books characteristically blend erudite philosophical speculation and explicit sexuality in ways sure to satisfy the academic lusts of the dustiest of dons.

So reviled for his un-PC attitudes – not least regarding Islam, which he once dismissed as "the stupidest of all faiths" – has Houellebecq become that he now lives in self-imposed exile deep in rural Ireland. When you're fleeing to Ireland to escape religious intolerance, you must really have put some folks' noses out of joint. One doubts whether Houellebecq is quite the type of person with whom a populist French politician – let alone a president – would like to be associated.

Musically, Bruni's latest album constitutes a fairly sizeable step beyond her previous efforts, which were largely restricted to simple, folksy settings in which nothing was allowed to obscure her husky, semi-spoken vocals. This time, producer Dominique Blanc-Francard has surrounded Bruni's intimate whispers with a range of subtly sophisticated arrangements drawing on roots modes, with clarinet and vibes lending an antique Parisian swing tone to "Le Temps Perdu", delicate harp arpeggios and a gentle undertow of organ anchoring "Déranger les pierres", and mandolin, foot-taps and smears of violin transforming "L'Antilope" into a French variant of Appalachian mountain music.

Elsewhere, "Je suis une enfant" is a plodding waltz built around passages from Schumann; "Notre grand amour est mort" a sluggish funeral blues slouch; "Pêché d'envie" a discreet shuffle of vibes and guitar; and "Ta Tienne" a Latin American-flavoured piece featuring fluttering flute over the chording of a small cuatro guitar.

It's all very pleasant, and surprisingly inoffensive, in a way which recalls previous chanteuses such as Françoise Hardy; but none of these arrangements, despite perhaps stretching Bruni's personal envelope, exactly breaks new ground. It's all simperingly Radio 2 in attitude, a mannered appropriation of elements neutered of their core in horny-handed roots music. And ultimately, the album stands or, more likely, falls on Bruni's voice, a weedy instrument which rarely rises above a whisper, and can barely be bothered to haul itself from spoken word to sung melody, a fault glaringly evident on her English-language No Promises project, in the absence of any continental allure.

Sadly, the only English lyric this time is Bruni's version of "You Belong To Me", an old standard recently revived by Bob Dylan, which she delivers as a husky torch-song over stark dobro accompaniment burnished with a Daniel Lanois-style ambient glow and capped with a wistful harmonica break.

The rest is almost entirely in French, from the opening piano waltz "Ma Jeunesse", presumably a reflection on turning 40 ("My youth regards me harshly, it tells me, 'It's time to go, I'm returning to other stars, and leaving you to finish your journey'") to "Notre grand amour est mort", the album drawing to a close on a cover of Italian singer Francesco Guccini's "Il Vecchio e il Bambino", a rumination on the way it becomes harder to distinguish dreams from reality, and truth from lies, as the ravages of time wreak their revenge on the once youthful.

It's an interesting album arc for a former supermodel to traverse, and doubtless psychologists would have a field day with its passage from youth's harsh betrayal to the uncertainties of old age. Still, so long as she keeps burning like a pagan woman, I'm sure M. Sarkozy will be happy with his little chrysanthemum.

Carla Bruni's 'Comme si de rien n'était' is released 14 July on Dramatico Records