Charlotte Gainsbourg has found her muse in Beck and vice versa. "IRM," the uber-cool duo's first collaboration is an infectious record of sonic experimentation and ace songwriting that marries Gainsbourg's breathy elegance and Beck's adventurous soundscapes. He pushes Gainsbourg to realize the vision that was only hinted at on her charming, but under-whelming 2006 release, "5:55."
As the daughter of France's hippest couple, the legendary late musician Serge Gainsbourg and sex goddess-turned-singer Jane Birkin, Charlotte has a lot to live up to. She's already proven herself on the silver screen (with delightful starring roles in The Science of Sleep and My Wife is an Actress) and now she's attempting to kick start her career as a musical artist.
Her first single "Lemon Incest," a controversial 1984 duet with her father, was criticized for glamorizing pedophilia (certainly not a first for the elder Gainsbourg - see the 1971 record "Histoire de Melody Nelson" for that distinction). A solo record followed in 1986 when Charlotte was only 15 years old. The album was written by Serge, so it's easy to dismiss it as a curiosity rather than a coming-out party. Emerging from the shadow of her father was an important step for Charlotte, especially in Europe where Serge is still revered. And while you can discern certain similarities (most notably in the hazy whisper-delivery) on "IRM," Beck has successfully given Gainsbourg her own identity.
Her emergence as a singular voice is apparent right from the get-go. "Master's Hands" is a jittery rhythm-heavy track that bathes the signature Gainsbourg vocal coo in washes of strings and acoustic guitar arpeggios. "Breathe out, come alive/Give me a reason to feel," Gainsbourg sings as if she's psyching herself up for the rest of the proceedings. From there the tempo and the experimentation is kicked up a notch with one of the album's highlights, the title track "IRM." A furiously paced burner with instrumentation that sounds like it's coming from a gang of robots beating on heavy machinery, the song is industrial, cold, and infectious.
With a highly mechanical vocal turn that deviates from her usual breathy whisper, Gainsbourg chants about the process of getting a brain scan (IRM is the French acronym for magnetic resonance imaging), eerily evoking the bleakness and fear often associated with medical technology. "Neuro pattern like a spider/capillary to the center/hold still and press a button/looking through a glass onion/following the X-ray eye/from the cortex to medulla." The lines are so methodical and lacking emotion that they betray the strong feelings she must have had during the terrifying episodes that inspired this track.
A few months after a water-skiing accident, Gainsbourg started to have frequent headaches and it was soon revealed that she had a brain hemorrhage. Emergency surgery saved her life, but an irrational fear that she was dying led her to have multiple MRI's despite being given a clean bill of health. It is this dichotomy between the deep emotions associated with illness and mortality and the chilly, robotic treatment of the song that makes the record fresh and interesting. Beck pushes Charlotte to break from the mold that's always been associated with the Gainsbourg name.
The rest of "IRM" expertly explores a variety of styles, from the string-drenched chanson "Le Chat Du Café Des Artistes" to the cinematic ballad "Vanities" and the Middle Eastern groove of "Voyage." This is post-modern pop alchemy at its best, and it shows off Beck as a master producer and arranger. In fact, in my estimation, it's more inventive than anything the lovable "Loser" has put to wax in the past decade. Here's hoping that the Beck/Gainsbourg relationship continues to blossom, gleaning inspiration from Serge's genius all the while forging ahead with the sounds of tomorrow.
Adobe Flash Required for flash player. "Master's Hands"
Adobe Flash Required for flash player. "IRM"
Adobe Flash Required for flash player. "Voyage"