If you want to see the difference between a great lyric and a moderately good one, here’s a place to start – compare and contrast Jacques Prévert’s 1946 song ‘Les Feuilles Mortes’ to the later American version,by Johnny Mercer, released in 1950.
One tells a story; the other expresses a general feeling. One feels original and heartfelt, the other is professionally written schmaltz. One feels like like a song, the other is life.
They share the melody, or at least the melody of the chorus, written by Joseph Kosma, who took Prévert’s poem and adapted it for the film Les Portes de la Nuit (1946). Crucially, the poem and the French version of the song open with a verse which cuts across the sweetness of the chorus.
Oh, je voudrais tant que tu souviens
Les jours heureux où nous étions amis
En ce temps-là la vie était plus belle
Et le soleil plus brûlant qu’aujourd’hui…
(Oh, how I wish that you remembered
Happy days when when we were friends
At that time, life was more beautiful
And the sun more burning than today…)
There’s an uncertainty, an ambiguity, about the verse – a sort of darkness, too. Sometimes spoken and sometimes sung by its best interpreter Yves Montand, the words are not just remembering a lost love but reflecting how even the memories are doomed to die and disappear
Et le vent du nord les emporte
Dans la nuit froide de l’oubli”’
(And the North wind carries them away
Into the cold night of oblivion…)
When the chorus arrives, like the sun appearing from behind the clouds, it’s saying that only this song remains. It’s haunting, sad. Once they had been lovers –
Mais la vie sépare ceux qui s’aiment
Tout doucement sans faire de bruit
Et la mer efface sur la sable
Les pas des amants désunis
(But life separates those who love one another
And the see washes from the sand
The footsteps of lovers who re apart.)
For me, the power of this writing, with its bold, sweeping imagery, is that it tells the oldest story but in a new way. It’s heart-breaking. I love everything about it.
The 1950 version by Johnny Mercer is very different. ‘Autumn Leaves’ may have made the great lyricist more money than any other song, including ‘Moon River’, ‘That Old Black Magic’ and ‘Come Rain or Come Shine’, but, in my humble opinion, it can’t hold a candle to the original. Mercer was said to have written it in 10 minutes – and it shows. These lyrics are just a song about a guy missing a girl. The autumnal metaphor goes nowhere.
‘Autumn Leaves’ has been covered thousands of times, and I can bear to listen to only very few of them. The Sinatra version is so glutinous as to make me feel physically sick. Bob Dylan brought something new to it. The extraordinary live performance by Eva Cassidy is head and shoulders above all others.
Yves Montand’s original version from Les Porte de la Nuit is cool and sexy, but the song is of a man facing old age and for that reason this live performance is so powerful and moving.