For a pleasant collection of Sunday-morning-croissants-and-newspapers tunes, Carla Bruni's new record has had a rough ride. Little French Songs, the fourth album from the supermodel-turned-popstar-turned-French first lady, was released in France on April 1, just when it seemed safe to put out new music, nearly a year after Nicolas Sarkozy lost his bid for a second term. But that wasn't counting on the record's very political reception in deeply divided France and Sarkozy's scandalous new legal troubles. Little French Songs hits stores in the United States on Tuesday.
Some reviewers in France are hailing this latest offering as Bruni's best since Quelqu'un m'a dit, her sparkling 2002 début, which sold two million copies and helped her win Best Female Artist honors at France's Victoires de la Musique in 2004. Less breathy than that first record, Little French Songs is a mix of wistful lilting ballads and jaunty folk-pop numbers. The glossy weekly Paris Match has called it a "f**king good album."
The Italian-born Bruni has sole words-and-music credit on all but three songs (one of which reprises a Chopin melody) and has said she sometimes composes on a Gibson folk guitar gifted by Michelle Obama. She pays homage to French legends—Brassens, Gainsbourg, Piaf—on the title track and the mostly French-language record reprises Charles Trenet's classic "Douce France" in Italian. Her dense lyrics and diction-testing rhymes indeed recall the best of her first album. "Chez Keith et Anita," the first single, is a rose-colored romp with Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards and his girlfriend Anita Pallenberg in the summer of 1970. (Bruni, who was famously linked romantically to Mick Jagger, has met both Keith and Anita, but was only 2 years old that year.) Many of the songs are good catchy fun—if you can get past the awkward backdrop and under layers of political subtext, either intended by Bruni or ascribed from afar. No small feat.
After a delay during Bruni's 2011 pregnancy and her husband's 2012 presidential campaign, April 2013 finally seemed appropriate for Bruni's first album in five years. But to general surprise on the night of March 21, Nicolas Sarkozy was placed under formal investigation in Bordeaux for allegedly taking financial advantage of Liliane Bettencourt, the L'Oréal cosmetics heiress who suffers from dementia. Bruni, 45, had spent that evening in Berlin, at Germany's Grammy-equivalent ECHO music awards, presenting a prize to Lana Del Rey and performing from Little French Songs. There she sang Sarkozy's praises in her new love song "Mon Raymond," which opens with a line on how he's right about everything.
The former president's case—a conviction could entail up to three years in jail and a 375,000-euro fine, although that penalty is deemed unlikely—quickly overshadowed Bruni's album promo. She told the French daily Le Parisien, "It's unthinkable that a man like him could abuse the frailty of a lady his mother's age." (The newspaper reported she shed a tear; critics cried foul, calling it mere public relations.) And so an interview meant to tout Bruni's new music wound up headlined, "My Husband Is Serene and Combative." Not exactly rock 'n' roll iconoclasm.
Le Parisien did nevertheless thumbs-up Little French Songs, calling it "a success, as seductive as her first record," "malicious, light, insouciant," and deemed the opening track, "J'arrive à toi," "magnifique." Bruni, meanwhile, has cooled on making Sarkozy's case, aiming now to keep it all about the music.
But that, too, is where critics say the problem lies. As in, Carla started it. Télérama, a top French cultural weekly, declined to review Bruni's album, settling on a profile instead. "You can't critique Bruni's record as if it were an ordinary record. We are all trapped by the context. She put herself in an ambiguous position, so she puts you in an ambiguous position," Télérama's Valérie Lehoux told Agence France-Presse. "If she wanted to do 11 purely sentimental songs without an ounce of political ambiguity, she would have. She's sufficiently talented for that."
Bruni has been clear that "Mon Raymond" is her pet name for Sarkozy. "He's the boss, he runs the shop, and although he wears a tie, he's a pirate," she sings. "No matter what the buffoons say, Raymond is dynamite." She even likens the former president to the atomic bomb, a rare instance in the history of pop music when a lover deemed the bomb actually had the nuclear codes.
In fact, Bruni has a history of dedicating very personal songs to the men in her life. "Darling" from Little French Songs is dedicated to the writer François Baudot, godfather to Bruni's 11-year-old son Aurélien. (Baudot committed suicide in 2010.) "Salut Marin," from Bruni's 2008 album Comme si de rien n'était, is for her late brother Virginio. And her début's catchy "Raphaël" was a playful ode to the philosopher Raphaël Enthoven, her son Aurélien's father. "He looks like an angel but he's a devil of love," she sang for Raphaël, the son of publisher Jean-Paul Enthoven, with whom she had previously been romantically linked, and ex-husband of Justine Lévy, Bernard-Henri Lévy's novelist daughter, who later roasted Bruni in a book.
But "Mon Raymond," a fawning paean to a politician still viscerally opposed by many in France and reputedly plotting a return, gave the new record a newsy, album à clef sheen, making political readings of Bruni's other songs unsurprising.
She has assured audiences that a Sofitel line in "Chez Keith et Anita" was written well before Dominique Strauss-Kahn's fateful stay at a certain Times Square hotel. Many saw a jibe at Sarkozy's unpopular successor, President François Hollande, in her track "Le Pingouin," a buoyant rhyming tune about an impolite penguin who "doesn't have the bearing of a lord of the manor." Hollande's brusque manner at the Elysée Palace the day Sarkozy left power last May was rumored to have irked Bruni. Her penguin, "neither ugly nor handsome, neither high nor low, neither here nor there, neither cold nor hot, neither yes nor no," was taken to represent the studiously bland Hollande, "all alone in [his] garden," as in his official presidential photo. Bruni has dismissed the interpretation repeatedly.
But her music and politics have made strange bedfellows before. Long associated with leftist intellectuals, Bruni slammed a proposal by Sarkozy's political party to test aspiring immigrants' DNA just weeks before her whirlwind romance with the pugnacious president began in 2007. The following year, she gifted fresh copies of her third album to Sarkozy's entire government after a Cabinet meeting. The bourgeois-bohème songstress insists she isn't part of the Establishment. But it's tough to get more Establishment than Cabinet.
"The context pretty well cannibalized [that] album and struck a blow at its intrinsic value," Olivier Caillart, head of Bruni's new record label Barclay, told Le Figaro over the weekend. "I think the first lady and the musician should have been differentiated, for one. The situation now is different. I hope the public will see the artist 100 percent."
And yet Bruni will always be the former (and maybe future) first lady of France, held to a different standard, even abroad. "There's something of Nero fiddling while Rome burns to Bruni's breathy delivery of self-penned songs intended to hark back to the golden age of French chanson," a Times of London critic charged. "You can imagine Bruni singing 'Mon Raymond,' a frankly embarrassing ode to her husband, in a smart Parisian salon, raising her elegant nose as the whiff of the rabble outside invades the gilded room."
The Swiss daily La Tribune de Genève similarly slagged her penguin, "regardless of the mystery of the person targeted" for "the condescending tone the singer uses towards a generally sympathetic animal ... Carla in her carriage; the wretched on their knees. Ugly."
Still, be it out of curiosity or devotion, Little French Songs hit No. 2 in its first week on the French charts, with 23,000 copies sold. Bruni hasn't played a concert since her Radio City Music Hall appearance in 2009, an all-star bash for Nelson Mandela. She now has three dates slated at the Casino de Paris in November. Gamble on mixed reviews, no matter how she sounds at the mic.