Belgian artist Stromae’s first album in almost a decade reveals a beguiling tapestry of worldwide influences.
In 2013, Stromae (Paul Van Haver) was fast-becoming one the Francophone’s biggest international stars. Alors on Danse from his debut Cheese topped the music charts worldwide. A few years later, he followed up with Racine Carrée, featuring the infectious ear worms Papaoutai and Tous Les Mêmes. The album then spent five years in the French charts.
However, as soon as he started, he suddenly stopped – partly due to a bad reaction to anti-malarial medication and partly from overall burnout. Other pop stars came and went, life moved on. But not entirely and it’s a credit to his unparalleled talent to produce truly timeless hits that his music always remained on the periphery. Everyone from Pitbull to Kanye West jumped on Alors on Danse remixes and as recently as last year, Joel Corry & Jax Jones sampled the song on Out Out featuring Charli XCX and Saweetie.
Signalling his triumphant return to the spotlight, Multitude opens with the audio equivalent of an air punch in Invaincu (Undefeated). He acknowledges his long absence and alludes to past difficulties, rapping “Oui, j’ai payé l’prix, J’ai du mal à l’écrire, Et du mal à l’dire” (“Yes, I paid the price, And I have trouble writing about it, And I have trouble speaking about it”) . Then in the chorus a joyful choir chants “Yeah!” alongside uplifting synths. He gleefully sings that he is alive and undefeated .
Generally, Stromae has moved on from crafting Europop dance-floor fillers as in his previous releases. Instead he expands his musical palate on Multitude, drawing on worldwide influences.
On Santé (Cheers) he raises a glass to the forgotten and lowly-paid members of society; the tired waiters, the cleaners and the over-worked call centre workers. A swaying synth balances precariously atop of cumbia rhythms and the jaunty strums of the Portuguese cavaquinho (guitar). The structure calls to mind Alors on Danse but it over-complicates itself and lacks the addictive hook of its predecessor.
The rest of the album presents us with a more compelling kaleidoscope of lyrical and instrumental material.
Inspired by his travels as a child across South America and Africa with his mother, he blends diverse musical styles and instruments. On La solassitude, about a sex addict, he pairs the Chinese erhu (violin) with African rhythms.
The woodwind zurna filigree and the sweeping instrumentation, courtesy of the National Belgian Orchestra, make an appearance on Pas vraiment (Not really) and Déclaration.
Meanwhile, Riez (Laugh) is reminiscent of Salif Keita, embellished with the kora and the lilting melodies of the erhu.
The harpsichord adds a grandiose air to Fils de joie (Son of joy), a clever play on the French expression fils de pute. It was inspired by a documentary on French TV about the children of sex workers. The big budget music video, where the singer holds a state funeral for a sex worker, highlights the size of this comeback. It plays in stark contrast to the unknown Stromae of ten years ago where the small-scale music videos were set in an office or a bar.
Although he inhabits different characters, the album also has a personal touch. The most powerful track on Multitude is L’Enfer (Hell). He debuted it during an interview on the French TV show TF1. When asked if his music had helped free him from loneliness, he begins to sing and turns to the camera, fixing the viewer with a sad gaze: “J’ai parfois eu des pensées suicidaires/ Et j’en suis peu fier” (“I’ve sometimes thought of suicide, And I’m not proud of it”). He licks his lips and swallows nervously, then wipes his brow. It’s both uncomfortable and mesmerising to watch.
Other songs are more light-hearted, the witty C’est que du bonheur encapsulates the delirious sleep-deprived new parent. He sings falsetto in the chorus “Tu verras, c’est qu’du bonheur, Tu verras, c’est d’la joie Y a les couches et les odeurs, Y a les vomis, les cacas et puis tout l’reste.” (“You’ll see, it’s only happiness, You’ll see, it’s only joy, There are nappies and smells, there is vomit, poop and then everything else.”)
Multitude is a self-assured and confident return to the stage, showcasing Stromae’s music as still as witty, pertinent and versatile as ever.
- SONGWRITING5/5 Certified TUNEThe artist doesn't shy from heavy topics and sensitively pens songs about misogyny, sex work, societal inequalities and suicide with moving and thought-provoking results.
- PRODUCTION4/5 Pretty greatInternational cross-overs between traditional instruments from around the world such as the Chinese ehru, Portuguese cavaquinho and harpsichord make for a compelling listen.
- VIBES4/5 Pretty greatOverall, Stromae's comeback brims with innovation and integrity, but it falls short of any standout hits.