A Frenchman now living in Los Angeles, singer-songwriter Michel Polnareff is not widely known in his adopted land. Born in Lot-en-Garrone in Southwest France in 1944, Polnareff has had a long and varied career with ties to legendary musicians. His father worked with Edith Piaf; his first hit, the oft-covered folk-rocker “La Poupée qui Fait Non” (1966), featured session player Jimmy Page.

Polnareff’s early hits are among the best and catchiest of ‘60s French pop. Yet his subsequent career has been rocked by scandal and inner torment. He suffered from depression and a degenerative eye condition that forced him to wear his now signature oversized sunglasses (the huge frizzy hair, which seems to endear him to very young audiences, is another matter). He was attacked on stage in the middle of a concert in 1970, and soon after was devastated by the suicide of his friend and manager Lucien Morisse. Another manager, Bernard Seneau, ran off with the singer’s money, setting off a financial scandal that led to Polnareff’s coming to America. There, Polnareff found moderate success with the 1975 single “Jesus for Tonight” and the electronic score to the lurid Margaux Hemingway thriller Lipstick. Polnareff returned to France in the ‘80s to greater acclaim and new albums that featured, of all things, hair metal power ballads.

Among the early pop hits and later successes, one album stands out. Released in 1971 in the aftermath of Morisse’s suicide, the lushly romantic and hook-filled Polnareff’s may be his finest musical moment.

The album opens with the densely orchestrated instrumental “Voyages,” an overture for a wildly diverse genre-jumping work. Sweeping strings and soul-jazz horns fade into electronic tweaks that segue into the baroque intro of “Né dans un Ice-cream” (“Born in Ice Cream”). The seemingly absurd conceit is delivered with defiant seriousness: “…people who chatter/ Say my mother fed me to jazz/ I had two brothers and four cellos.” The lush confection quickly moves from baroque pop to soulful rock to jazz and back, a versatility that almost suggests a less mystically strange imagining of Love’s Forever Changes.

Tracks flow into each other as a seamless suite, from ballads like “Petite, Petite” to the ambitious “Computer’s Dream,” which starts with a pensive electric keyboard before Polnareff, half-scatting, launches a funkier, up-tempo section. Though it would be a few years before Polnareff would embrace electronics on the Lipstick soundtrack (in the persona of music made by the film’s cruel rapist, no less), he clearly has ideas about computer dreams, and they involve dreamy singing and slicing electric guitar solos.

“Nos Mots d’Amour” is the kind of romantic ballad you think of when you think of French pop, but even this relatively conventional number ends in a dizzying circular string figure. The second side opens with another instrumental flourish, “…Mais Encore,” and hits a peak on the ambitious “Monsieur l’Abbe,” which marries bubblegum and psychedelia in a wild and infectiously hummable collage. The slowly rocking beat of “Hey You Woman” supports a mostly spoken-word performance charting a bad relationship that at one point leaves the singer trapped in a refrigerator for two years. Sure, “I had my bottle of milk every morning/ But that’s a cold heart.” The album ends on another ballad, “À Minuit, à Midi,” its melodrama giving way to a gorgeous soaring chorus and swooning strings.

In America, Serge Gainsbourg tends to be the standard bearer for idiosyncratic French pop. Polnareff is not as prolific or sensationalistic – then again, he did bare his ass for a promotional photo that got him into trouble. Yet his music is even more accessible, and at times just as cheeky. Even if you don’t know Polnareff’s name, you may know his music, via Saint Etienne’s English-language cover of “La Poupée qui Fait Non” or Pizzicato Five’s version of “Tout Tout Pour Ma Cherie.” Polnareff has hooks, personality and an audacious visual style; why doesn’t this transplanted Los Angelean have a bigger following here? Listen to him on your favorite streaming service and buy his still generally affordable records—before long, his time will come.

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