There's much more to Gainsbourg than Melody Nelson, and this album proves it! Like Melody, L'homme à Tête de Chou is a relatively short album that continues Gainsbourg's seemingly life-long obsession with the highly immoral anti-hero; all wrapped up in the format of that most dreaded of beasts, the concept album. As a result, the story at the heart of L'homme..." is perhaps the most absurd thing on record, with Gainsbourg taking his abstract imagery to previously unexplored levels of musical excess; spinning a dense, intense and often darkly comic little parable involving sex, jealously, infidelity, murder and madness.
Although it must be said, it's not as iconic as the much more celebrated Histoire de Melody Nelson, "L'homme..." remains, to my ears at least, an absolute joy of an album. Here, Gainsbourg retains the more delicate elements of Melody, and lays them alongside the gleeful provocation of preceeding Rock Around the Bunker. He also offers up a real concept that allows his muse to follow previously unexplored areas of lyrical and musical excess. It's a testament to Gainsbourg as an artist that he wasn't standing still. Even after more than a decade of success across Europe, and even a cult notoriety and a certain level of critical respect in the UK, he was still pushing himself further as an artist, with "L'homme..." building on elements of his previous work, but also branching out to incorporate elements of baroque pop, new wave, lounge-jazz, progressive rock, disco and funk. The use of keyboards and synthesisers very much ties in with the late 70's obsession for all things "Kraut", with the success of Kraftwerk bringing electronic music and dance beats into the pop hemisphere, whilst the following year would see the likes of the Bee Gees and ABBA re-establishing them selves through the medium of late 70's disco chic. As a result, L'homme à Tête de Chou could also be seen as being nearer to Bowie's work of the same period, with Gainsbourg taking a darker, more contemporary (for the mid-to-late 1970's) sound and employing it alongside his trademark quirks and characteristics, as Bowie would eventually do with his so-called "Berlin Trilogy".
The first half of the album flows seamlessly, with Gainsbourg and his collaborators (including backing vocalists from Dark Side of the Moon) playing around with repetitive themes and motifs. For example, the first two tracks, L'homme à Tête de Chou and Chez Max Coiffeur Pour Homme have the exact same chord structure and melody... the only difference between the two are the arrangement and the lyrics. The first song opens with tinkling bells to set the scene before the synthesisers of arranger/keyboardist Alan Hawkshaw kick in to give the song a more eerie and ominous vibe. The second song goes for a more funk orientated arrangement with dexterous lead guitar work from Alan Parker and a great rhythm section featuring Brian Odgers on bass and Dougie Wright on drums. Serge is at his most seductive and deranged when it comes to vocal delivery, bringing that trademark whisper and even managing to make the most ordinary of lyrics sound heart-stopping in their beauty; a skill that is most evident on the seven and half minute joy of Variations Sur Marilou, in which Gainsbourg reels off a list of different objects, places and people - including references to pop culture figures like The Rolling Stones, Elvis, Hendrix and, most interestingly, Lewis Carroll - in a way that sounds absolutely riveting.
Much of the album employs a baroque/disco style, with the funk heavy rhythm section and a hint of new wave creeping in - a sound that is most apparent on the opening tracks, as well as the abovementioned Variations Sur Marilou - but there are also a couple of sweet little pop songs too. Both Marilou Reggae (which, unsurprisingly enough finds the reggae element beginning to permeate the porno funk veneer) and the penultimate track Marilou sous la neige (which featured on the great Gainsbourg compilation Initials S.G. from a few years ago) have a nice finger picked acoustic guitar sound and a great sense of rhythm. With the closing track, Lunatic Asylum, Gainsbourg even manages to predate an album like The Dreaming by Kate Bush (or specifically, the title track from that particular album) as well as several post-punk acts (amongst them, Public Image Ltd and The Cure). The musical backing-track is suitably minimal... built around a distorted electronic pulse that sounds like an African tribal chant; while various elements of percussion and what sounds like a didgeridoo all drift into the mix. Meanwhile, Gainsbourg never breaks out of that hushed whisper; keeping his cool while the ghost of his lover gnaws on his cabbage-patch skull!
The great cover-art ties it all together, with Gainsbourg's own photography of a statue that resides in his garden; a surreal recreation of the artist rendered in marble by his good friend Claude Lalanne. It stands as a testament to the central character, left to bounce off the walls of a padded cell; a victim of his own carnal desires. With its bizarre and absurd central concept, and its schizophrenic approach to musical styles, arrangements and instrumentation, L'Homme à Tête de Chou will obviously be a hard sell... even to those already entranced by Gainsbourg's more iconic early pop work, in particular, Histoire de Melody Nelson. Melody Nelson is an album to listen to on a veranda; preferable whilst wearing a turtleneck and quoting poetry in an attempt to seduce your best friend's daughter. "L'homme..." is a darker beast indeed; an album to wake up screaming to; whilst Gainsbourg laughs and throws a wink in your direction.