Frederic Malle isn't letting go of his broad brush. In recent years, the perfumes emerging under his label (both pre and post-Lauder acquisition) have become more voluminous and more robust, to the extent that it's now hard to imagine him giving us something displaying the delicacy of, say, En Passant or L'Eau D'Hiver. Indeed his latest - Superstitious, composed by Dominique Ropion, as part of a collaboration between Malle and Alber Elbaz - could well be his largest yet. And yes, I know I make this claim about a collection which includes the likes of Carnal Flower and Portrait Of A Lady. But there's no denying the scale of this thing, because that is its chief strength and, arguably, its most problematic feature.
Putting aside scent-geek ruminations for a moment, I ought to begin by stating that Superstitious is a sandalwood floral with a marked aldehyde opening and a reliance on incense and vetivert. Like many bald assertions on scent, this one doesn't tell you much. For one thing, you need to know that the aldehydes in this case aren't of the sparkling, champagne-bubble variety, but the waxy, candle-shaving sort. Do not for a moment think this is Malle's take on No. 5 (he explored that territory with Pierre Bourdon in Iris Poudre).
The other thing you need to know is that the word 'floral' in relation to this perfume essentially means jasmine. Yes, there's a suggestion of rose in there too, but the main focus is on an unashamed, mothballs-and-all portrayal of perfumery's most ubiquitous white flower, with its weird conjunction of banana peel, week-old-ashtray and droplets of sweat on a tanned back (which means - pardon an interjection of the scent-geek - that this scent finally marks the arrival of a bona fide jasmine composition from Malle).
And the last thing you need to know is that the sandalwood note in this case is anything but clean, milky and creamy. On the contrary, it is roughly-hewn, super-woody and more than a little filthy. In fact, it is much closer to the odour profile of certain synthetic sandalwood materials (Javanol comes to mind) than to the gentle inflections of the natural stuff, thanks in so small part to its being paired with the earthy funk of vetivert.
So, you take waxy aldehydes, an intoxicating jasmine and a dirty sandalwood and what do you get? Well, a deeply interesting piece of work, appearing to contain references to several classics from years gone by. Indeed, expect other critics' reviews to name-check a host of other perfumes, from Shocking to Samsara. But why do I say 'interesting'? Well, for a start, Superstitious doesn't try hard to be loved. With commendably uncompromising determination, Malle has helped fashion a piece of work which many will doubtless find too challenging, too brash, too close to the sweat glands. But, as I said before, this is where its power lies: in this nonchalant refusal to give in to the demands of the lowest common denominator. Like a carnival fortune teller whose face is made more attractive because of its lines and its scowl, the perfume radiates an allure indifferent to the approval of others.
That said, anyone who's played around with natural jasmine, synthetic sandalwoods and vetivert oil may well have ended up producing a juice whose drydown approaches that of Superstitious. And this unexpected - almost shocking - reliance on the overriding smell of just a few gigantic materials in the base notes is cause for our collective scent-geek eyebrows to be raised. Do we praise Ropion/Malle/Elbaz for having the courage to finish their scent with the olfactory equivalent of a block of primary colours? Or do we accuse them of taking the easy way out?
Personally, I'm inclined to lean on the former. Ropion has absolutely no need to prove that he can paint with the finest of brushes; he's done that countless times. So perhaps, on this occasion, I can just submit to the vision of him concluding the symphony by pressing down hard on every key his fingers can cover and forcing the church organ to bellow an almighty chord that seems to echo and reverberate for ever. That image is fine with me; after all, deciding to 'go big' takes some skill too. And - to return to my first analogy - whether Malle and his collaborators are working with a brush the size of a rolling pin or of an eyelash, the one attribute they've consistently displayed in all of their projects is a great deal of skill.
[Review based on a sample of eau de parfum provided by Editions De Parfums Frederic Malle in 2017.]
In a slight twist to normal proceedings, today's review is accompanied by one of my Sixty Second Scents videos on YouTube. Click below to watch it, or on this link if you'd prefer to view it on the YouTube site. If you're enjoying the video reviews, please do subscribe to my YouTube channel.