While there will always be a place in popular music for the mindless fun of acts like Nelly or Soulja Boy, music is at its most powerful when its genesis is the expression of the human soul, whether it is in praise of the Almighty or in pouring out of the deepest romantic emotions. At its best, music can communicate the condition of the world in a manner unmatched by any other means. And that is part of the power of the Motown debut of Montreal-based artist Corneille.
Corneille is a new name to the US music scene, but he is already a certified star in Europe, where his brand of acoustic pop/soul has been embraced over the past half decade. Born in Germany but transplanted to Rwanda at a young age, Corneille experienced one of the worst genocides of the past century. Fearful for their son's safety, Corneille's parents sent him back to Germany as the violence escalated. He escaped with his life, but, sadly, the rest of his family did not. That experience, including both the sorrow of missing his family and the "survivor's guilt" of being the one who escaped, pervades his music -- not making it morbid but rather giving it a depth of message as Corneille tackles topics that rise above the trivial.
On The Birth of Corneillius, Corneille reflects on his life, reliving some of the worst moments but also cherishing the present, colored as it is by all that came before. It is best typified by the chilling "Foolish Heart," where Corneille simultaneously cries for the injustice of losing his family ("Father, I wish you were here to see the man I grew up to be / Mother, I wish you were here to see the girl I married") and thanks them for shaping him ("If I'm here crying/if I'm here loving/ if I'm here caring/ it's for one reason only/ it's because I remember your love"). More matter-of-a-fact, but no less powerful, is the beautiful dirge to Rwanda, "I'll Never Call You Home Again":
Last time I saw you, you were filling your rivers with the blood of your own
Last time I saw you, you were wearing fire and burning ourselves to the bone
That's how I remember you
That's how I remember you
So please forgive me if I never call you home again.
But if The Birth of Cornellius expresses its sad undertone early, Corneille (in his life and on his album) finds his way back, with love (both agape and romantic love) serving as the great healer. It saves the lost soul in "Back to Life," where a lover has literally "loved me back to life." It then becomes the all encompassing force in "Sweet Dependency," where he analogizes it to an intoxicating addiction for which he is neither apologetic nor remorseful, and "Too Much of Everything" where the singer's humanity is raised to a higher level of perfection by the presence of love. And the thought is made complete in "Home Is By You," where a husband uses military metaphors to describe his love, dreaming that "maybe one day we'll have our own little army/and we'll raise them to soldier for love/This is the only way to change the world really/To leave the next ones with a heritage of love." Though the choice of words often betrays that the songwriter is expressing his thoughts in his second language, they are nonetheless powerful, and provide a theme of loss, desperation and ultimate redemption that is superior.
If The Birth of Corneillius were simply released for its lyrical imagery, it would be worthy of recommending. But the better news is that this story of one man's life is put to a beautiful soundtrack. Musically, the album recalls PJ Morton's fantastic acoustic soul album Emotions. Like Morton, Corneille isn't a classic soul-styled crooner (he's more John Mayer than Al Green), but has a voice that fits comfortably with his extremely melodic compositions. And he fills Corneillius with a great deal of ear candy, from the infectious hooks in "Murder" and "Liberation" to the radio ready simplicity of "Too Much of Everything."
It is still early in 2009, but it is tough to imagine The Birth of Corneillius not making a number of December lists of the year's best releases. Congratulations to Motown for bringing this incredible artist to American audiences. He is a great find and The Birth of Corneillius is a superb introduction. This is essential listening. Highly recommended.
By Chris Rizik