It seems like such a limited premise: Bossa nova covers of hit songs from the ’80s, mainly of new wave and electronica of that period. But Nouvelle Vague have been going for 20 years. To have that longevity there has to be something more, and there is. When Marc Collin and Olivier Libaux started the project they brought immense ability in playing and arranging music. And they had exquisite taste in the artists they collaborated with. This has made them a regular feature of Cover Me lists, and they have inspired a small industry of other cover artists in the field. Unfortunately, Libaux passed in 2021, but Collin is preparing to release a new album to mark the 20th anniversary of their first release, and is working with some of his most successful collaborators. From that album comes “Only You,” with Melanie Pain on vocals.
“Only You” was the song that brought Alison Moyet and Vince Clarke together, as Yazoo (aka Yaz). Coming from Clarke’s remarkably fecund period in the ’80s, the duo allowed him to get off the merry-go-round that touring and recording with Depeche Mode became. It was also a great vehicle for Moyet, and the collaboration shone brightly. Clarke himself describes this song as a “simple” arrangement, giving room for a brilliant vocalist to add the necessary emotion. Moyet’s contralto does this expertly, so that the loss of the relationship is felt keenly. The simplicity and flexibility allowed the song to enter the zeitgeist in the UK, with an acapella version reaching number one, and several ad campaigns based around it.
By contrast, Nouvelle Vague invest more in the arrangement. We have noted that the latest incarnation of the band is not sticking as closely to the bossa nova style of their past, and that this could be a good thing. Here we don’t necessarily get a Spector-like wall of sound, but we do get a picket fence of it. We have heavy percussion, increased pace and fewer sharps in the key. Overall there is urgency and less despondency in the tone. Perhaps Pain and Collin are holding on to the past less than some other purveyors of the tune, keen to move on to the next stage.
Some people believe that Clarke wrote the song as an allegory of his relationship with Depeche Mode, as he considered his departure. Certainly, the rest of the band had no interest in the tune, and soon he was gone. One suspects that Nouvelle Vague are holding on less firmly to the past, which makes their future all the more interesting.