Late one night on a recent trip to Brazil, I found myself at a very hopping club in the Lapa district of Rio de Janeiro, where a band was performing a catchy samba tune with great energy and gusto. I was standing at the bar waiting for a caipirinha and tipsily swaying to the beat, when I suddenly realized I knew the melody, though I couldn't think of the artist. The gal whom I was traveling with during this leg of the trip, a Brazilian, turned to me and said, "Oh, I love this song! It's by Seu Jorge." I paused a moment, then shook my head, troubled. No, I thought, someone much older, and much more talented than Seu Jorge, wrote that song--but who? Then it hit me: Chico Buarque. It was the second song off Construção, though I couldn't come up with the title. "No," I said to my friend knowingly, "It's by Chico Buarque. Seu Jorge just covered it. It goes all the way back to 1971." My friend shot me a glare that said, "Jesus, what the hell is wrong with you?" And I giggled. The funny thing was, that was only one encounter with Chico Buarque among quite a few I experienced during my two weeks in Brazil. In fact, more than any other musician, it was Buarque who came up in conversations I had with local people about Brazilian music. "Do you know Chico Buarque?" one person after another would ask me. And immediately I would hear the melody from "Valsinha" in my head, sung in that unmistakable voice, and swoon a little, then nod vigorously.
It's no surprise, I suppose, that so many people are still talking so emphatically about Chico Buarque, and playing his music so ardently: since he began his career in the mid-sixties, the man has fashioned more jewel-like melodies--melodies perfectly wedded to clever lyrics--than all but a very small handful of his countrymen. Whether or not you care for Buarque's renditions of his own songs, and particularly for his sultry-soft, Kermit the Frog-like voice, is a matter of personal taste. You can't quibble, though, with his dizzying legacy, a mother lode of some thirty albums recorded over four decades, containing some of the most beloved and frequently covered tunes in Brazilian music--and some of the most sophisticated poetry MPB has produced. Prettier than anyone has any business being, he nevertheless shunned the teen idol role from the very beginning, determined to carve out a reputation as a "serious" musician. And he started his career making records that, while ambitious enough in their own way, were relatively safe and conservative, both musically and lyrically. By the early seventies, though, he had metamorphosed into a strident socio-political commentator, as Construção bears witness. He spoke out with bold, if thinly veiled, indignation against political injustices in Brazil and especially in his native Rio de Janeiro (most famously in "Calice," his duet with Milton Nascimento), and was in fact temporarily exiled by the military dictatorship for his candor, spending a portion of the 1970s in Europe.
Most listeners who have really put in the time with Buarque's discography seem to agree that Construção is his greatest single recording, an album that, in its daring conception and richly diverse textures, outpaces anything he had done before or would do afterward. Its centerpiece is the chilling title track, a mini-masterpiece that, like one or two other songs on the record, sounds rather like a fragment from a musical. (In fact, Buarque had co-written a musical some years before, and this would appear to have prepared him for the writing of Construção). "Construção" is an indictment of the dreary, dehumanizing lifestyle of the Brazilian working class, appropriately set against a monotonous rhythmic backdrop and sung in a rigidly robotic fashion. Like The Beatles' "A Day in the Life," it tracks the progress of an everyman as he wakes up in the morning, gets ready for the day, and proceeds to go to work. But Buarque's song is not a tale of postmodern ennui; it's one of grim economic determinism, in which people are forced to take on jobs that degrade and finally destroy them in order to make ends meet--and in the process relinquish their souls. The dual opiates of sex and cachaça help numb them even as they're gradually transformed into machines. In the course of the song, the protagonist, a construction worker who plies his trade atop a scaffolding high above the ground, leaps into the air in a moment of desperation, falling to his death in the street below ("He stumbled into the sky like a drunk / And floated in the air like a bird / And ended up on the ground in a limp bundle / Agonized in the middle of the street"). (I interpret this part as a suicide, though I concede it's ambiguous.) In the song's bitterly ironic climax, Buarque repeats the phrase "Deus lhe pague" ("God shall reward you"), a reprise from the opening track, angrily targeting the empty promise of a heavenly afterlife that sustains these people through their otherwise unbearable lifestyles ("For the flies, insects which kiss and cover us / And for the final peace that will redeem us in the end / God shall reward you"). Admittedly, this sounds like deeply depressing stuff, but the experience of listening to it is a seriously stirring and invigorating one.
One might go on for some time talking about the songs on Construção in this manner, since nearly all of them are as intricately crafted and hence bear the weight of serious commentary. "Valsinha," a wrenching ballad, "A Minha Historia," a little oasis in the otherwise bleak soundscape that is Construção--these are a couple of the highlights that will keep you coming back to this album, and perhaps inspire you to venture further into Buarque's massive catalogue.
1. Deus Lhe Pague (3:20)
2. Cotidiano (2:50)
3. Desalento (2:48)
4. Construção (6:24)
5. Cordão (2:32)
6. Olha Maria (3:57)
7. Samba de Orly (2:40)
8. Valsinha (2:01)
9. Minha Historia (Gesubambino) (3:02)
10. Acalanto (1:39)