The Riff
Published in

The Riff

‘No Promises’ by Carla Bruni (Half-Pint Reviews #7)

A French glamor model does English poetry right

An Italian-French fashion model turned folk singer decides to write her own music to English canonical poetry on her way to becoming France’s first lady. This is the kind of thing I will check out for the sheer oddness of it, certain of getting something interesting even if unlistenable. As it turns out, Carla Bruni’s 2007 album No Promises is both interesting and enjoyable listening.

Carla Bruni began her professional life as a model. A quick online search and there she is walking the runway, advertising luxury items and generally looking fabulous. In addition to model-frigid and smoker-cool, she also has a smile I can imagine lighting up any room. She released her first album Quelqu’un m’a dit in 2003 to success, married then French president Nicolas Sarkozy in 2008, and did a little acting for Woody Allen’s 2011 film Midnight in Paris as the tour guide at Musée Rodin. As of her self-titled release in 2020, her discography is six studio albums long.

The concept for No Promises shouldn’t work. The poets Bruni has chosen are the type you study in high school, with English that’s old-fashioned and obtuse in ways for which teenagers have no patience: William Butler Yeats, W.H. Auden, Emily Dickinson, Christina Rossetti, Walter de la Mare and Dorothy Parker. Astonishingly, the poets’ phrases work wonderfully as memorable and emotive 21st-century lyrics, and Bruni’s sultry voice and effortless delivery, at times as spoken as sung, makes them lovely.

Bruni appears to be pondering aging and death. Both poems by American poet and Algonquin Round Table wit Dorothy Parker (1893–1967) reflect upon getting older, with reluctance but acceptance. One is titled “Ballade at Thirty-Five,” fitting since Bruni would have been in her late thirties when completing this album. In “Afternoon,” Parker imagines what she will be like as an elderly woman, sitting and stirring her tea. Life will have settled down some, but she’s in no hurry to reach the rocking chair of her senescence.

The selections from American poet Emily Dickinson (1830–1886) are, characteristically, more morbid. In “I Went to Heaven,” however, she puts a soft spin on death by imagining what the presumed future abode is like. I like the way she describes the people there:

“People like the moth,
Of mechlin, frames,
Duties of gossamer,
And eider names.
Almost contented
I could be
’Mong such unique

Thankfully, the music never gets in the way of the words. Acoustic guitar, bass guitar and sparse percussion open a space, sometimes embellished by keyboard instruments such as harpsichord or mellotron, for Bruni to adorn with her voice. The compositions are simple and catchy. From the moment the album begins with “Those Dancing Days Are Gone,” which pairs Yeats with a Sheryl Crowesque jaunt, I knew I was in for a treat. Apparently, many in Europe were equally as pleased, because Billboard reported the album as hitting the peak position of the European Top 100 Albums.

No Promises is also a visual treat. The CD cover and booklet photos show Bruni lounging around a home cluttered with old furniture, music paraphernalia, flowers, photos, toys and assorted bric-a-brac. She wears a white nightie showing off legs I would assume were insured, stares blankly as if lost in the past, and reads a book of poetry resembling an old volume of the Everyman’s Library, maybe The Golden Treasury. Altogether, these photos present a tasteful, sensual gallery.

What is Bruni contemplating in those photos? Secrets, perhaps. The final track, based on “At Last the Secret Is Out” by W.H. Auden, reminds readers that there is a “private reason” behind everything from corpses to croquet matches and drunk men to dancing ladies. I’d like to think No Promises is Bruni giving us a glimpse, but only a glimpse, behind her public persona and into her private, innermost world.

Half-Pint Reviews is a series of short reviews covering releases that strike me as little-known, underappreciated or forgotten. The last installment was about Living Colour drummer Will Calhoun’s jazz album Native Lands and may be read in The Riff here.



Medium’s premier music publication

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
J.P. Williams

I write about the intersection of arts and ideas. Lots of short music reviews at the moment.