The latest instalment of Mark St John Ellis’ ongoing Goth/Romantic project is a setting of poems from Les Fleurs du Mal by Charles Baudelaire. This text achieved notoriety on its first publication in 1857, with the French Ministry of the Interior declaring that it “constituted an act of defiance in contempt of the laws which safeguard religion and morality.” The court, in upholding censorship of the poems, concurred that they “inevitably lead to the arousal of the senses by crude and indecent realism.”
It’s unclear whether Ellis’ work is intended as an act of homage to Baudelaire or a more daring attempt to reignite the scandal he once enjoyed. Either way this album is problematic. At a time when outrage is carefully cultivated and stoked in the hallowed galleries of the Royal Academy, it’s simply not possible to shock an audience any more: we have, all too literally, seen it all before. Baudelaire’s feverish imaginings no longer resonate with the shock value they once had, and whatever residual impact they retain is well and truly dissipated here by the stiltedness of the English translations used.
The major problem, however, is one of interpretation. The life of the poems is on the page, where the words are free to create meaning and arouse emotion in the mind of the reader. The minute Ellis gets his mucky paws on them, those possibilities are closed off. What we are left with are Ellis’ dolorous tones, reciting the texts in a mannered, declamatory style.
The music is correspondingly rhetorical, relying heavily on bombastic keyboard patterns. ‘Je T’Adore’ is the exception, and the one occasion where Ellis drops the stridency of tone for something more tender and hypnotic. Otherwise, this is a misguided and unnecessary release. Buy the book of Les Fleurs du Mal instead.
(Originally published in The Sound Projector 8, 2000)