Bonjour Tristesse, originally, is a popular novel by Francoise Sagan published in 1954. I read it a long time ago and didn’t like it much. Too melodramatic. I could be mistaken of course, but I don’t think the German one-man black metal project with the same name is named after the book. I’d say it was rather the idea the book’s title is alluding to that was considered intriguing: saying “hello” to sadness, acknowledging sadness. In fact, as the Sufi mystic Rumi suggests in his poem The Guest House, we should treat all emotions in that way, we should acknowledge them. There is no need to portray things worse than they are, but facing reality, even if it’s grim, is a positive act and a prerequisite for change.
Facing the ugly realities of urban life, of life in the large cities of highly developed countries, is exactly what the band Bonjour Tristesse (Nathanael and the occasional collaborator) are doing on their new album Your Ultimate Urban Nightmare.
The album cover serves as an introduction to the subject: In black and white, the cover features a merged image of at least two different megacity skylines. One of the cities in the image is Shanghai, the other one(s) I don’t recognise. Different images have been overlapped evoking the impression that there is a ghost city present in an actual city. Above this prototypical city is a night sky filled with dark clouds, announcing a storm, foreshadowing future evils.
Big cities look similar everywhere around the world. Distinguishing them is difficult. The ghost of the West can be seen and felt in Asia. Globalization promotes the loss of cultural identity. Architecture, housing, infrastructure, services are pretty much the same in every big city, if you disregard the local flair. You can eat pizza in Hong Kong, and Peking duck in Rome. Everybody knows McDonald’s. The problems large cities have, are also the same everywhere: crime, and consequently police brutality, air pollution, homelessness, slums, family structures falling apart. The middle class has become almost non-existent. A broad stratum of poor and relatively poor caters to the thin strata of the rich. All around the world, big city life has the same negative effects on the individual. Depression and related mental illnesses are unknown to native peoples.
Gloomy prospects. A bit like watching a Greek tragedy, where the whole audience knows that a character’s action will have fatal results, but the character has no idea.
So… How has all of this been put to music?
Well, I imagine it has been done somewhat like this: Melancholia and rage have been set as the two opposing extremes on a scale that offers possible emotional reactions to the current state of affairs, and the music on Your Ultimate Urban Nightmare is therefore constantly shifting between these two extremes, including all the states that lie between them, such as exhaustion and disillusionment.
The rage can be heard in crazy fast black metal and crust tunes with screamed vocals, the melancholia in slow piano instrumentals, the disillusionment in spoken word passages mixed into post metal, and the exhaustion in occasionally slow and dragging tempos.
The title track, for example, opens with white noise from a city in which you can hear police sirens, then the music sets in, full of angry energy, with screamed vocals, intensifies into utter craziness, before the energy runs out and exhaustion sets it. Blacktop Prison, starts out as a beautiful, calming piano instrumental, but then the piano sounds become ever more distorted, until calming beauty has turned into annoying experimental noise.
Track titles like Alienation and One of the Ghostfolk further add to the subject that has been introduced by the cover and the album title. Alienation, in the beginning, has a slow and somewhat dragging tempo, because feeling alienated is a rather heavy weight to carry. The video to One of the Ghostfolk shows a digitally modified black-and-white photograph of orderly rows of terraced houses, looking like insect cocoons, and a hooded figure standing on a stump above them looking down in contemplation.
Ironically, but not accidently, the most classically beautiful track on the album, a piano instrumental, has the saddest atmosphere and the ugliest name: Another Bullshit Night in Suck City.
I can’t understand much of the mostly screamed lyrics and they haven’t been included in the press material, so I didn’t have the chance to look at them. But the subject Your Ultimate Urban Nightmare deals with reminded me of the lyrics to the Tool song Aenema, especially the rather poetic title of the second track: Like a Scythe in a Ripened Field. The sentiment expressed seems to be the same as in Tool’s Aenema: “Here in this hopeless fucking hole we call L.A. / the only way to fix it is to flush it all away.”
The album ends with the raging Wavebreaker, which might be referring to a form of resistance, or suggesting a solution in line with the one proposed by Tool.
Your Ultimate Urban Nightmare is a great, intense and impressive listen. It’s sad, yes, but not necessarily depressive, because we are looking reality in the eye, and, as I said in the beginning, I think that’s a good thing. Also, the music is not monotone, it is not exhausting to listen to. Very often it is energy-laden, melodic, surprisingly beautiful, sometimes even soothing, and always immensely intelligent. How ironic and the same time fitting, that such a depressing subject should result in such a beautiful work of art.