There aren’t many artists whose personal life overshadows their musical output but Serge Gainsbourg wasn’t like most artists. His early career was spent smoking Gitanes, lurching between love affairs with various screen sirens and drinking his way through the nightclubs of Paris.
Later he would become a dishevelled regular on French television, setting fire to a 500 franc note and drunkenly declaring his wish to bed Whitney Houston, before dying of a heart attack at 62.
It’s little wonder that, apart from a bar of heavy breathing in ‘Je t’aime… moi non plus’, history can’t handle Gainsbourg’s musical accomplishments and some of the singer’s best work remains largely forgotten.
The 40th anniversary edition of Histoire de Melody Nelson may not change our image of Gainsbourg as the original libertin français but it should reaffirm his skills as a musician. First released in 1971, the concept album centres on the inappropriate relationship between Gainsbourg and teenager Melody Nelson, breathlessly voiced by his then lover, Jane Birkin.
In true Gainsbourgian style, the extremes of taste are pushed to breaking point with theatrical string accompaniments and the climactic death of his muse in a plane crash. But behind all of this provocative excess lie carefully concise song constructions (the album lasts only 28 minutes) and probably the most accomplished orchestral-pop marriage in the history of music.
Of course no one wants to remember Gainsbourg for carefulness or marriage. Revisiting Histoire de Melody Nelson for the disturbing Lolita-esque undertones alone is enough. The love of extremities, the refusal to settle for the middle ground and the commitment to controversy (this is the man who sang a song with his daughter titled ‘Lemon Incest’) are what fuel our enduring fascination with Gainsbourg, even if they end up overshadowing his talents as a musician.
Listening to this iconic album again traces the roots of artists as diverse as Grizzly Bear, Super Furry Animals and Pulp back to the musical innovations of Gainsbourg.
The deluxe edition of Histoire de Melody Nelson includes vocal takes as well as DVD material of original music videos and interviews with sound engineer, Jean-Claude Charvier and photographer, Tony Frank. The extras are interesting enough for the casual Gainsbourg fan and the instrumental takes highlight the intricacy of Dave Richmond and Dougie White’s rhythm compositions but anything you really need to know about Melody Nelson is addressed in Gainsbourg’s original 8 tracks.
The combination of psychedelic pop and funk-inspired bass with Jean Claude Vannier’s orchestral arrangements still sounds as audacious as it did forty years ago.
Album opener, ‘Melody’ undercuts a scratchy guitar line with impulsive flourishes of strings, creating a seething anticipation that builds until we finally hear Birkin declare herself as ‘Melody Nelson’. Vannier and Gainsbourg manage to create this kind of expansive sound and narrative within very brief windows. ‘Valse De Melody’ intensifies Gainsbourg’s guttural pleas for ‘le soleil’ and ‘le bonheur’ around a cloying two-minute waltz. But however claustrophobic Gainsbourg’s guttural croon may become, the delicate orchestral accompaniments that shiver behind him seem to assure us of his innocence.
‘He’s the best and the worst’ Brigitte Bardot said of her once lover and indeed Histoire de Melody Nelson shows Gainsbourg as the tasteless maverick but also the master songwriter and poet; someone who still inspires today’s most innovative artists.
by Phoebe Hurst