The first thing that strikes you about Madeleine Peyroux’s latest album, Anthem, is its distinctive artwork. Significantly, it’s the first of the singer’s eight studio LPs that doesn’t feature her on the front cover. Instead, it has three horizontal bands of colour: blue, white, and red, melting into each other in a flag-like configuration.
Listen to Anthem right now.
“It’s meant to be blurred and unclear,” the 44-year-old Georgia-born singer-songwriter tells uDiscover Music of the deliberately provocative and symbolic artwork. “I took the colours of the American flag and placed them in a way that didn’t represent any particular flag – or any political policy – that I could find. I wanted to evoke a question: where do you stand? I’m questioning what we believe in and what we think democracy means and how we intend to continue to create it.”
The thought-provoking Anthem cover art reflects an album whose theme, according to its creator, is about “what’s happening in the world, especially in America”. Via a series of heartfelt autobiographical narratives and pithy, character-driven songs, Anthem is a deep exploration of people’s allegiances – to country, family, morality, money, drugs and, ultimately, self. Unlike any previous Peyroux album, it wrestles with socio-political issues and was directly inspired by the 2016 US presidential election, which saw divisive billionaire entrepreneur Donald Trump elected into office. “I was touring constantly during that time in the United States throughout the campaign while the debates, caucuses and primaries were going on,” says Peyroux, who opposes the controversial policies and practices of her nation’s new leader.
“I was getting a sense of the country… it was unbelievable”
Through those concerts back in 2016, Peyroux says she was able connect in a deeper way with the American public and that the effect on her was profound. “I was getting a sense of the country by playing to these audiences every night and it was unbelievable,” she reveals. “It was very powerful and beautiful and then also very intimate in a way that I hadn’t experienced before.”
Caught up in the drama and turmoil of the election, Peyroux felt the urge to start making a new record to capture some of her thoughts and feelings of the time. She hadn’t produced an album dominated by original songs since 2009’s Bare Bones, but began writing fresh material in Los Angeles together with her co-writers and fellow-musicians David Baerwald, Brian Macleod and Patrick Warren, along with noted producer Larry Klein. Peyroux says, “About every four or five months, the five of us got together for a couple of afternoons and had ideas and explored some things, until early last year I called Larry and said, ‘Listen, I think we have some great songs, can we please make a record?’”
Originally a jazz bassist who played in trumpeter Freddie Hubbard’s band during the late 70s, Klein first made his mark as a producer with Joni Mitchell and, in 2004, helmed Peyroux’s breakthrough record, Careless Love. Renowned for his ability to bring out the best in female vocalists, he collaborated on three further albums with Peyroux, the last being 2013’s The Blue Room.
After 2016’s Secular Hymns, which Peyroux produced herself, the singer sought Klein’s participation on Anthem. She views him as a kindred spirit. “We understand each other because we reconnect when it comes to depression,” laughs Peyroux. “We’ve talked a lot about it over the years in various contexts, and when something sad happens, I reach out to him. He has some really interesting ideas on things that we go back and forth on and I enjoy being able to dialogue and exchange ideas with him about the world.”
A chink of light
It was through their conversations that Klein suggested Peyroux should consider covering what became the album’s title song. “Larry said, ‘Hey, you’ve got to check out this song “Anthem” by Leonard Cohen,’ because we were in the midst of commiserating about the political status of things here in the US,” Peyroux recalls. The song originally appeared on Cohen’s 1992 album, The Future, and its message, though stark, is that humanity’s ultimate saving grace is its imperfections. It’s our flaws, says Cohen, that offer us hope and redemption. For Peyroux, the key line in the song – “There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in” – deeply resonated with her. “It has this incredible power of hope, which Leonard brings from within a truly brutally honest perspective of pessimism,” she says. “He’s saying, Look at how terrible this is and then live through it and come out the other side.”
‘Anthem’ offers a chink of light and a scintilla of hope on a collection of songs that are mostly downbeat. Even the set’s more upbeat songs – such as the delightful ‘On My Own’ and blissfully carefree ‘On A Sunday Afternoon’, which reprise the gypsy-jazz style of her earlier work – are tinged with melancholy.
But nothing is quite as bleak – or potent, for that matter – as ‘The Brand New Deal’, a withering indictment of the predatory, dog-eat-dog world that Peyroux says we live in, where money rules and power corrupts absolutely. Musically, it inhabits a churning jazz-funk groove whose effect is mesmerising. “The point of the song is to speak up,” says Peyroux of a tune whose unforgettable refrain is, “It’s every man for himself so grab the wealth.” She also reveals that the song was initially called ‘The Art Of The Deal’, after Donald Trump’s autobiography: “I changed it because I realised it wasn’t as powerful because it was too obvious and referenced one person instead of tackling the original issue, which is the system, attitude, and philosophy that created him.”
“When you fall down in this country, it’s hard to get back up”
One of the victims of the world Peyroux describes in ‘The Brand New Deal’ is the focus of ‘Down On Me’. A sticky slice of slow-burning swamp funk à la Tony Joe White, it sounds unlike anything else Peyroux has recorded. She projects her thoughts via a character who’s at a low personal ebb and whose life is spiralling into a black hole of debt and drugs. “It was one of the first songs we all wrote together for the album,” reveals the singer, who says that she wanted Anthem to address the difficulties facing poor people in America. “When you fall down in this country it’s hard to get back up,” she states.
The song is distinguished by several memorable lines, though the best is, “I broke a law I never heard of before.” Though those words offer a glint of droll humour, in truth, for Peyroux, it’s no laughing matter and offers an example of how her native country’s legislation often seems to work in favour of the affluent and against the poor. “It’s a funny thing because we talk about freedom in this country but some of our laws are really Draconian and it’s a big part of the system here. If somebody wants to hold you to the letter of the law, then you’re done for,” she says.
Freedom – both personal and political – is the theme of ‘Liberté’, on which Peyroux sings in French and provides a beautiful and moving musical adaptation of Paul Éluard’s famous poem, which he wrote during the Nazi occupation of France during World War II. Peyroux reveals that she originally recorded the song for the soundtrack to a French documentary called Sur La Pointe (in English: On The Tips Of Her Toes), about a rare terminal disease called duchenne muscular dystrophy.
The song assumes a different meaning completely within the context of the new album. “It’s almost like a bookend with ‘Anthem’,” Peyroux says. “It references this personalised, intimate attitude towards politics and asks what is it I perceive to be my reality and my idea of freedom? What do I love the most and how do I understand that?” For the singer, who has strong links with France – she lived in Paris as a teenager and began her career there – it struck a chord and its message chimed with her political concerns in the Trump era. “I think it’s eternally relevant,” she says. “Paul Éluard originally thought of it as a love poem to his partner but realised by the end that it had turned into a protest for freedom.”
“I believe that we must carry on”
The album’s other highlights include ‘Party Tyme’, a darkly humorous but insightful tale of a person in rehab; a booze-soaked saloon ballad called ‘The Ghosts Of Tomorrow’, where jazzy trumpet and harmonica engage in a smoky dialogue behind Peyroux’s plangent vocals; and the optimistic ‘We Might As Well Dance’, which channels the vibe of Marvin Gaye’s ‘Sexual Healing’. The latter offers a moment of romantic escapism, which, for many people, is the best antidote to the world’s troubles. Its message – “I believe that we must carry on” sings Peyroux – echoes the sentiment of the Leonard Cohen-penned title song.
Peyroux mourns her departed idols on the eloquently-stated ‘All My Heroes’. “That song is very close to my heart and an important one for me,” says Peyroux, who lists the late Robin Williams, Leonard Cohen, George Carlin, Prince and David Bowie as some of her beacons of inspiration who passed recently. But her adulation for them wasn’t a blind, blinkered, hero-worship, and she feels that it is vital to state that her heroes were human, not gods. “I think the main thing about being able to learn from somebody else’s genius is that you also have to learn that they are flawed,” she says. “You have to accept that in order to get the whole lesson, and that’s basically what the song’s about.”
Anthem has its own heroes, too, but they’re also flawed: a motley collection of the disenfranchised, disillusioned and world-weary; losers who are down-at-heel, out-of-luck, and even fearing for their sanity. Peyroux explains, “The record is a group of stories of different people’s experiences and presents an intimate attitude towards politics through their personal lives.” Their stories are anthems of survival in a heartless world that doesn’t seem to care. Despite this, Peyroux believes that Anthem is a hopeful album; she’s aware, though, that some might not see it that way. “I’m afraid that when the album finally ends, that we don’t hear that hope and that’s why it’s a constant battle, I think, even playing these songs live, trying to get people to latch on to the hopeful aspect in these characters and in these songs.”
“Questions are the most healthy things there are”
As an artistic statement, Anthem is Madeleine Peyroux’s most important album yet, affirming that she has come of age as a songwriter. She describes the world she sees with a poetic elegance and expresses her views without being preachy or didactic. Ultimately, her goal is to encourage her listeners to challenge the status quo by questioning the world around them and the way it runs.
“I think questions are the most healthy things there are,” she says. But don’t expect her to provide solutions. “I don’t have the answers,” she confesses. Rather, she’s hoping that her listeners will find, to use Leonard Cohen’s words, the “crack in everything”, and will come to see the light for themselves.
For Madeleine Peyroux, then, the first step on the road to enlightenment is seeking answers and expressing opinions. “I think it’s important to speak out right now,” she says. “That’s the only way change can happen.”
Anthem can be bought here.