Europeans, specifically members of the French intelligentsia, have long had a thing for the unknowability of the American interior. Just look to Jean Baudrillard, the French sociologist, cultural theorist, and, among other things, author of a book called Amérique. Published in 1986, it describes a cross-country trip through white-hot stretches of desert and Midwestern megaplexes. “Seedy bar in Santa Barbara,” Baudrillard writes. “Sex, beach, and mountains. Sex and beach, beach and mountains. Mountains and sex. A few concepts. Sex and concepts. ‘Just a life.’” His book is arguably unreadable, but it’s important—if only because it perfectly encapsulates the mystic, misty-eyed view certain French intellectuals take of the ordinary American road trip. On Paradigmes, the third record by the Paris-via-Biarritz band La Femme, Marlon Magnée and Sacha Got take that view of America and deviously turn it on its ear.
La Femme is perhaps the biggest rock band in France right now. They’ve soundtracked a Céline runway show and appeared in black-and-white photos on Hedi Slimane’s personal blog. They’ve been on the cover of Les Inrockuptibles, the country’s most influential culture publication, twice. They are inescapable in Paris. You could go to any record store in the city and easily find their previous releases: 2016’s Mystère, with its yonic cover art and coldwave-indebted songs about getting wasted near Strasbourg Saint Denis, and Psycho Tropical Berlin, 2013’s dystopian acid trip of a debut. In Paris, prior to the pandemic, La Femme—a band that at times sounds a bit like ye olde prog rock warlocks Amon Düül—could pack an arena.
Far less krauty than its predecessors, Paradigmes is a trip through America in the same way that an old Italian spaghetti western is. But there’s no solid narrative structure—only hours spent behind the wheel, traversing mountains and deserts, quixotic geographic markers that appear like characters in a story. The brassy surf-pop of “Cool Colorado” slithers through “Denver City” and eventually lands in “la Cité des Anges,” where “la vie est so cool.” On the glitchy “Nouvelle-Orléans,” New Orleans is a state of mind, a place to dream about when everything else is uncertain. “Pasadena” recounts teenage romance with drugged-out drum machines and synthesizers that light up like a Catherine wheel. The song has the cool sensibility of a Spike Jonze skater flick, the lyrics so effortless they’re almost lazy. “Toi avec tes copines/Moi avec mes potes/Direction: le skate park” (“You with your friends/Me with my mates/Heading to the skate park”), Magnée mutters, his voice a sinuous wave of distortion.
Not every song is so explicitly about America, if it’s about America at all. Like Kraftwerk before them, La Femme’s rendering is often textural, a byproduct of international pop-cultural backwash. “Disconnexion,” the record’s most ambitious track, moves from armchair philosophizing about Pascal and Descartes to breakneck banjo to a huge, baroque Moog solo à la Wendy Carlos. “Lâcher de chevaux” feels like a reference to Ennio Morricone’s theme music for The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, complete with samples of a horse’s neigh and a cracking whip. “Foreigner” evokes Giorgio Moroder’s From Here to Eternity with synthesizers that chirp like animatronic birds. It also features some of the record’s wryest—and most obnoxious—lyrics. “You fuck this guy without a condom/A DJ or whatever/And I’m sick of that,” sings Magnée in English, with a visible smirk.
Paradigmes is fun, tight, and never boring, though there are lackluster moments, like “Foutre le bordel,” a derivative of Plastic Bertrand’s hugely popular “Ça Plane Pour Moi,” and several instances when songs like “Paradigme” and “Le sang de mon prochain” skirt close to the nefarious genre of electro swing. The whole album is so unserious that it can seem like an hour-long inside joke; at times I felt convinced I was being trolled, as if it would all soon turn out to be a stunt. If someone like Baudrillard approached the American travelogue in the most humorless way imaginable, then La Femme fall at the opposite extreme. Paradigmes is a good time, but its intellectual merit is entirely surface level. It’s like watching the funniest person in a college philosophy seminar give a presentation they failed to prepare in advance: you laugh, but not because you learned anything.
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