"If You Go Away" is an adaptation of the 1959 Jacques Brel song "Ne me quitte pas" with English lyrics by Rod McKuen. Created as part of a larger project to translate Brel's work, "If You Go Away" is considered a pop standard and has been recorded by many artists, including Greta Keller, for whom some say McKuen wrote the lyrics.
A sad but hopeful song, the lyrics are told from the perspective of someone telling their lover how much they'd be missed if they left. This is described in vivid, hyperbolic terms, such as "there'll be nothing left in the world to trust". If the lover stays, the narrator promises them both devotion and good times ("I'll make you a day / Like no day has been, or will be again"). Some lines show that the narrator is speaking to the lover as they already are leaving, or considering doing so ("Can I tell you now, as you turn to go..."). The lines "If you go, as I know you will" and later "...as I know you must" make clear that despite the narrator's protests, the lover's leaving is inevitable.
McKuen's translation is significantly different from the original Brel lyric. The English version is based around contrasting what would happen "if you go away" and what could happen "if you stay".
In the original French version, the singer begs for his lover not to leave him and is more supplicant and almost self-humiliating (the title "Ne me quitte pas" translates "Do not leave me"). Significant is the last image of the French version; although the McKuen version has lyrics that come close to the original sentiment, the French lyrics are far bleaker (as is the song in general): "Let me become the shadow of your shadow, the shadow of your hand, the shadow of your dog" (lit. translation of the original) as opposed to "I'd have been the shadow of your shadow if I thought it might have kept me by your side" (English lyrics).
The English version omits an interesting section of the original version in which the singer begs his lover to give their relationship a second chance, using examples derived from the natural world: "I will tell you of those lovers who saw their hearts catch fire twice;" "Fire has often been seen gushing out of an ancient volcano we thought too old"; "There are, people say, burnt lands that produce more wheat than the best of Aprils".
1960: Barbara, a close friend of Brel, was the first to cover the original song on her Barbara chante Brassens et Brel album, for which she was awarded Le Grand Prix du Disque.
1964: Marlene Dietrich recorded the first non-French cover version, "Bitte geh' nicht fort," which she performed at the Paris Olympia that year with Brel was her support act.
1967: Dusty Springfield released a version on her album The Look of Love. When Dusty's life story was turned into a musical in 2000, "If You Go Away" was chosen for the climax of the show. The stage Dusty was portrayed by singer/actress Mari Wilson.
• Jack Jones recorded the song for his album, Lady.
• Lana Cantrell released a version on her album And Then There Was Lana. While mainly in English, this version retains one line of the original French: "Ne me quitte pas."
• The Seekers recorded a version for their album, Seen in Green.
• Shirley Bassey released a version as a single which also appeared on her album And We Were Lovers. Bassey also recorded an alternative version in Italy in 1968 and this version was only issued in Italy as a single. McKuen was very fond of Bassey's version and wrote to her saying he enjoyed it and thanking her. In 2002, her version of the song featured in the movie Merci Docteur Rey.
Former Soft Cell singer Marc Almond covered the song during his solo career, on Jacques, an album of Jaques Brel covers. He also performed the track live several times, perhaps most memorably at a Royal Albert Hall performance on the live album Twelve Years of Tears in a very emotional rendition, with Almond sounding close to tears himself by the climax of the song. Also on Untitled, an album of Marc and the Mambas released 1982.
Eartha Kitt recorded two live performances of the song, the first on "Live in London" and the second, as a medley with Hymn to Love, on "Live at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival." She also included the song as part of her set when touring.
Nick Currie, better known as Momus, returned to Brel's original song and translated it as "Don't Leave" in 1986, released initially on the Jacques EP and then on an expanded reissue of the album Circus Maximus.