The pieces simply don’t add up. In 2008, Charlotte Gainsbourg eagerly sought out the role of “She” in Lars von Trier’s controversial horror film, Antichrist, for which she would eventually win Best Actress at the Cannes in 2009. As the daughter of two famous artists, Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin, both of whom boast successful careers in film and music, Charlotte’s artistic endeavors have always faced the danger of being written off as the product of inherited fame. Her award-winning performance, therefore, was not only a prestigious compliment but a guarantee that she would be remembered apart from her parents for her own artistic merit—that is, as an actress. The question here, though, is not whether Gainsbourg is a memorable actress, but whether she is a good musician and whether her latest album, IRM, a high profile collaboration with Beck, is any good. Unfortunately, the answer to these questions is not a straightforward, “yes,” but a qualified, “sort of.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Gainsbourg’s musical career is haunted by the shadows of others. Born out of a collaborative album release with her father when she was a child, her musical career got off to an infamous start in 1984 with the strange duet “Lemon Incest,” which achieved notoriety for its sensationalist exultation of pedophilia and incest. Marred from the beginning by this type of gimmickry, Gainsbourg continued to make recordings whose success came from high-profile collaborations and shocking content. In 2000, she was featured on a Madonna track, “What It Feels Like for a Girl”; then in 2004 she recorded a duet with one of France’s biggest pop stars, Etienne Daho. In 2006, she released her first full-length album as an adult, 5:55, which soared to the top of the French music charts. Like most of her previous work, 5:55’s hype rode on the album’s all-star cast, which included, among others, Radiohead’s main producer, Nicolas Godin, and the English (alt)rockstar Jarvis Cocker.
In this respect, IRM is no different. Gainsbourg once again rides on the coattail of a more serious musician. Fortunately, the quality of musical composition is better than that of any of her previous collaborations, which were mostly subpar. Beck’s skillful, offbeat orchestration dominates the album, while Gainsbourg’s voice plays a secondary role dampened behind the albums colorful pastiche of musical genres. Gainsbourg, whose stunning confidence as an actress dominated audiences’ attentions last year, doesn’t seem capable of the same self-assertion in her musical endeavors; her powerful presence as an actress is all but absent in IRM’s thirteen tracks. But does this mean the album is a total miscarry? Not in the least.
The truth is Gainsbourg doesn’t have to prove her musical chops; she is, after all, a hybrid artist—one parts musician, two parts actress. Her musical endeavors are of a different breed—that of indulgent self-exploration and expression. IRM, like previous records, is not so much a well-crafted musical experiment as it is an impressionistic self-portrait. Gainsbourg isn’t trying to be the next Ella Fitzgerald; she’s more interested in presenting a highly stylized, personal vision of her biological and medical history.
Up to this point, Gainsbourg’s musical self-portraits revolved around her mock-incestual relationship with her father. Thankfully, on IRM, it seems she’s found a new bedfellow. Prior to recording, Gainsbourg underwent surgery for a life threatening head injury. The near death experience proved fruitful: during treatment she fell in love with the sounds of MRI machines and had time for serious soul searching. IRM, the French translation of MRI (Imagerie par Résonance Magnétique), reflects her experience both musically and thematically. For example, in the title track she sings: “Analyze EKG/Can you see a memory/Register all my fear/On a flowchart disappear,” while startling pulses and clanks provide background percussion and melody making the otherwise robotically repetitive lyrical meter somewhat compelling. The abrasive buzzing, as one might guess, is the voice of Gainsbourg’s newfound brain-scanning love. Gainsbourg’s words, which despite their stream-of-consciousness unwieldiness are at times surpringly profound, painting a blurred, hallucinatory picture of the her medical journey as her whispered singing lends a feeling of detached reflection to the disturbing vision.
This detached reflection postured against the strange and unpredictable orchestration is the album’s strong point. In songs like “Vanities,” her whispered self-address draws the listener in, as if a page of a melancholic’s diary were being read aloud: “You could have it all/You could pawn it off/You could learn to crawl/Where you used to walk.” The tracks are fittingly incongruous, traipsing upon blues, ethnic-dance, and funk while flaunting a lighthearted irreverence towards music and life. The question she poses in the song, “In the End,”—“who’s to say it’s all for the best?”—lingers uncomfortably throughout the album. Unexpectedly, it is this confession of arbitrary stardom that makes the album surprisingly compelling in its own right. In the music video for the lead single “Heaven Can Wait,” a duet with Beck (his only vocal contribution), there are strange images: a bomb with the word “nachos” written on it, boxers next to a merry-go-round. Beck and Gainsbourg sing in a charming, lazy tone: “Heaven can wait/And Hell’s too far to go.” Gainsbourg’s purgatory is the place of possibility; she creates beauty out of the contingent and mysterious, and it renders her hauntingly serene.
The “sort of” given as an answer to the question whether Gainsbourg is a skilled musician and whether IRM is a strong album favors the affirmative in both cases: IRM isn’t the profound musical statement of a talented musician seeking to establish herself in the world of pop music, but rather the delightful product of two creative artists; it isn’t a musical masterpiece, but a careful, pleasant to listen to exploration of Gainsbourg’s experiences that, by virtue of insightful writing and excellent execution, transcend their specific nature and invite listeners to reflect upon stardom, sickness, death, and life.
Herman Hernandez lives and writes in New York City.