on 8 December 2009
Anyone with a passing familiarity with Charlotte Gainsbourg's work in the medium of both music and film will know that the woman brings a lot of her fathers' eccentricity to the table. It doesn't take a physicist to figure out that her work in Lars Von Trier's "Antichrist" was one of the most painful (literally) experiences ever captured on film, yet she went on to render it in an almost blank-faced fashion, dead-panning throughout the movie until its' visceral climactic conclusion.
On "5:55", which I rated rather highly a few years ago, Charlotte worked with a production team that understood that the only way to make her light, spoken-word singing voice work, was to complement it with strings, violins, and quiet piano interludes. Add to this a medium dose of musical experimentation, and an epic was born. "5:55" found and captured something that no other album has been able to since, and it is truly a unique work in more ways than one. From the jangly musical perfection that is "Everything I Cannot See" to the ponderous morbidity of "The Operation", its something best appreciated by lovers of the independent French music scene, of which thankfully I am a subscriber.
Post "Antichrist" and her much publicized accident, Gainsbourg returns with an album that could possibly even perplex Serge. The immediate sense of coherency that heralded "5:55" is missing here, with lead (and standout) track "IRM" setting the tone for a curious oddity, an album where the stakes are higher, the experimentation more visible, and the voice showing absolutely no signs of evolution at all. While Gainsbourg is certainly alluding to her time spent with the magnetic equipment that discerned her injuries at the time, the song itself is an ode to the clunky bit of equipment an MRI machine really is. With Beck at the forefront, one would expect no less, but in stark contrast to lead single from "5:55" ("The Songs that we Sing"), "IRM" is not instantly memorable, and nor is it meant to be. In that context I would readily compare it to Bjork Gudmundsdottir's "Cvalda" from "Selmasongs", or indeed, the entire "Drawing Restraint 9" project by Matthew Barney.
Shades of Jane Birkin crop up on the albums' only real duet (though joint production credits abound elsewhere). "Heaven Can Wait", while sporting a now infamous video, is a somber take on a nursery rhyme gone wrong, and instead works as a silent lamentation on all things lost. Serge Gainsbourg's work towards the end of his career focused on topics such as death, loss, grief and in typical fashion he bounced back from these with jolly ditties written to the follies of love and alcohol. This gene seems to have skipped Charlotte, as she seems even more depressed on "IRM" than she ever has (the album makes her '80s debut "Lemon Incest" seem like a fun day at the circus).
Indeed, the sinister and morbid songwriting only elevate the overall tone of the music, as "In The End", a classic piece of French pop if there ever was one. The track combines the best of the 1960s French yeye stylings with a more British Invasion feel that underscores its' simplicity. But the lyrics! How clever these songwriters were, and Charlotte's airy vocals, often conveying almost nothing, do well in such dark surroundings. Consider this a companion piece to the novella "My Life in Rose Red" and you wouldn't be much off the mark.
M.I.A's contribution is as stellar as Becks, especially on 'Greenwich Mean Time', which is infinitely more adventurous than anything on "5:55" or even on anything else on "IRM". Its moments like these when Gainsbourg lets loose, Yoko Ono style, that a true glimmer of her personality shines through, and its every bit as guarded and disturbed as her lead role in "Antichrist" would let us believe. This is not a pretty, happy record. But it is an essential one, and clearly one of the frontrunners for Album of the Year.
Four and a Half Stars. Indispensable.