A window into Charlotte Gainsbourg’s mind

With her new release, Rest, Charlotte Gainsbourg now considers herself what she refers to as a “proper writer.” For the first time, she has written her own lyrics. Her collaborators on her previous three studio albums had taken care of all lyrical and songwriting duties, with the exception of one track she co-wrote with Beck on her 2009 release, IRM. While she was working on Rest, Charlotte Gainsbourg revealed to Mojo that Beck, during the IRM sessions, had offered a simple yet insightful nugget of advice for hurling oneself into the waters of songwriting: “You have to write the worst song ever, and that’s how you start.”

Thankfully, her worst song ever does not appear on Rest. Instead, the veteran actress (Antichrist, Prête-moi ta main, Nymphomaniac) sings her bilingual French and English lyrics, distilled from her diaries, to the techno, house, and ambient beats of French electronic artist Sebastian Akchoté, creating a pleasantly dynamic yet poignantly personal work that showcases Gainsbourg’s vocal versatility. Akchoté must have taken notes on how Gainsbourg’s vocals on her 2006 release, 5:55, written by Air and Jarvis Cocker, occasionally fell into an awkward placement atop the band’s downtempo tracks, where Gainsbourg was unable to break out of a breathy delivery. Likewise, Akchoté must have also been informed by the sweet alchemy Gainsbourg and Beck had struck on IRM, with Beck’s braiding of singer-songwriter hooks and irresistible electro-indie rhythms allowing Gainsbourg to offer her own version of punchy French 60s yé-yé (albeit in English) as well as an injection of sexy edginess into her breathiness, creating a delightful contradiction.

The contradictions on Rest are less subtle. Gainsbourg recalls standing by her father’s dead body as the sound of nails driven into the coffin remains with her in “Lying with you,” while a driving drum machine and haunting keyboard lines, reminiscent of a late 70s Tangerine Dream groove, creates a darkness that lurks just beneath a glossy veneer of pop.

In contrast, Gainsbourg lays bare her grief in “Kate,” in which she reflects on the life of her half-sister who died in an apparent suicide. Akchoté opts for a sparser electronic pulse as Gainsbourg pushes through sorrow with a powerful angelic voice (“On the way to school / You were singing your idols” builds up to “A soul too tender” and “Lost forever”). With majestic, string-soaked turnarounds that sound as if they nod to Sufjan Stevens, Akchoté sharpens the edge of emotion with a touch of distortion on Gainsbourg’s vocals.

The infectious and dancefloor-ready “Deadly Valentine” reveals a recitation of wedding vows, perhaps representing her devotion to her long-standing partner, the actor and director Yvan Attal, in place of a legal marriage owing to her avoidance of the institution. While Akchoté managed to make all 23 brief tracks on his 2011 release Total sound and feel unique, Akchoté must have known he had hit on a killer groove for Gainsbourg’s “Deadly Valentine,” enough to lay down an almost interchangeable chorus for “Sylvia Says.” Thankfully, Gainsbourg brings a fresh tone and flavor to each to keep them distinctive and, fortunately, both tracks are not back to back on the CD (for us old-school folks who still play albums from start to finish).

Gainsbourg takes us for a gentle jaunt into French nouvelle chanson on “Dans Vos Airs.” While a comparison to Coralie Clement may be tempting, Gainsbourg’s own breathy coffeehouse delivery possesses too much body to be mistaken for the airy whispers of the former.

On “Songbird in a cage,” the only track whose lyrics Gainsbourg did not pen (Paul McCartney wrote the song for her some years back and also played guitars, piano, and drums on the track), Gainsbourg deftly alternates between yé-yé half-shouts on verses and silky Phantogram-esque choruses. Rounding out the top-shelf guest appearances Gainsbourg secured for the album, Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo of Daft Punk wrote the sparse, spacy music of the title track that dovetails well with Gainsbourg’s sensual dreamscape (“Stay with me, please / Do not let me forget you / Take my hand, secretly / I’ll let you fly me away”).

While the bare leg that pops “out of the sheet without shame and cold blood” during “Lying with You” belongs to the French singer, songwriter, and provocateur Serge Gainsbourg, his daughter has shown that while she was born from entertainment royalty (the British actress and singer Jane Birkin is her mother), she has carved out her own career and style, despite living in such tall shadows. Many fans of her father have expected to hear his daughter write and sing songs like his to satisfy their fix after Serge’s untimely death in 1991. While the Serge effect is unmistakable on Rest, especially in “Les Crocodiles,” with a confidence-oozing spoken narration, a buildup of strings, and a dry snare seemingly sampled from Histoire de Melody Nelson and only slightly fattened up, such details don’t spell out a mini-me Serge imitation. Rather, they form a tribute pulled sparingly from a songwriting toolset when the timing was right. And no one is better prepared for such a tribute than Serge’s own offspring.

After sharing thoughts on a visit to her sister’s grave in “Les Oxalis,” the final track, Gainsbourg attempts to lighten up the ambience with a hidden track containing an auto-tuned recording of her daughter singing the alphabet song, put to a stock electronic beat. Most likely, the idea behind the track—besides underscoring the continuing cycle of death and life—was that a singing child can put a smile on just about anyone’s face. Unfortunately, the track comes off as sounding like knob-nerd studio experimentation.

While Rest loses some ground compared to the instant catchiness of IRM, Gainsbourg’s own words make her new album her most vital to date. The album’s brave reflection on grief, melded with a beat-driven physique, creates a compelling and rewarding opus that reveals a deep connection between the artist and her work, something her fans (myself included) have been waiting for.

About OmnivorousTraveler

Darrin DuFord is a travel writer, mapgazer, and jungle rodent connoisseur. His writing has won numerous awards and has appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, BBC Travel, Gastronomica, Roads & Kingdoms, Narratively, and Perceptive Travel, among other publications. He is the author of Breakfast for Alligators: Quests, Showdowns and Revelations in the Americas (released in July 2016) and Is There a Hole in the Boat? Tales of Travel in Panama without a Car, silver medalist in the 2007 Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Awards.
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