Charlotte Gainsbourg has been famous in France since before she could walk, and yet she carries the weight of all those expectations as gracefully as a Birkin bag, which are named, incidentally, after her mother, Jane Birkin.
Birkin is an English actress and French singer who appeared in dozens of movies, including the arthouse classic Blowup. Birkin was herself the daughter of another famous actress, Judy Campbell, the platonic partner and muse for celebrated playwright Noel Coward. Judy Campbell’s parents were both well-known actors, of course. As far as theatrical lineages go, the blood doesn’t get much bluer.
Charlotte Gainsbourg’s father was a Jewish survivor of the Nazis and a self-made man who remade all of French music while he was at it. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to call Serge Gainsbourg the most important French musician of the 20th century. His knotty wordplay means his songs are treacherous to translate, but the mix of sex appeal and heady satire hasn’t been seen before or since — as if the Rolling Stones joined forces with Randy Newman.
After Birkin and Gainsbourg the elder met on a film set, the two made more than a series of racy French duets (including “Je t’aime… moi non plus”, which is the first result if you google “French orgasm song.”) They also made Charlotte, and I don’t mean merely physically. By the time she was 14, she had won a Cesar, the French equivalent of an Oscar, and scored her first smash single, an almost unbearably uncomfortable duet with her father called “Lemon Incest”.
Fast-forward 27 years and Charlotte Gainsbourg has put together a remarkable career. Her acting has won awards in France and America, and her bilingual albums have sold millions of copies. One can hear her father in her musical eclecticism, and yet she’s not the same kind of shit-stirring provocateur. Temperamentally she’s closer to her mother and grandmother: an inspiring and discriminating partner, more comfortable as muse than maestro. Her first album, Charlotte for Ever, was written and produced by Serge. Her second, 5:55, was written by Jarvis Cocker and produced by Nigel Godrich of Radiohead fame. 2009’s IRM was inspired by Charlotte’s medical maladies but written and produced by Beck. She’s a remarkable talent, make no mistake, but one of her greatest resources has always been her impeccable taste in collaborators.
Well, there’s something different on Gainsbourg’s newest album, Rest. True, the vocals remain excellent in a familiar sort of way: breathy and expressive. The musical influences are predictably wide, drawing from hip-hop, synth pop, psychedelia, and French new wave. The collaborators are as well-curated as ever although there are more of them than we are used to seeing: Paul McCartney, Owen Pallett, Connan Mockasin, and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo of Daft Punk. The whole shebang is produced by French DJ SebastiAn, known for his work with Daft Punk, Frank Ocean, Nero and others. But this time the collaborators have taken a backseat — less ghostwriters than ghost house bands. For the first time, Gainsbourg is writing almost all of her own lyrics. And the results are … fine.
At her best, Gainsbourg finds depth in simplicity. On the album’s title track, produced by de Homo-Christem, she whispers, “We’re walking in air/ We’re floating in the moonlit sky/ I’m finding I can fly/ So high with you.” To paraphrase Hemingway, you don’t need big words for big emotions. Her voice floats above the electric haunting of de Homo-Christem’s beat like a cold wind on a cloudless night. It’s comforting and a little creepy, a kind of adult lullaby.
This childlike simplicity is almost certainly a choice, and as proof I offer “Ring a Ring O-Roses”, the first song on Rest. The chorus is the famous children’s chant, but Gainsbourg adds a new ending: “Ring-a-Ring O-Roses/ Pocketful of Posies/ We all fall down/ Round and round in circle/ Waiting for a miracle/ Kiss the crowd.” Before that, she goes through a series of firsts: “Premier baiser… Premier foule… Premier ivresse…” First kiss, first crowd, first time getting drunk. Later we have “Premier chagrin,” or first grief, which almost certainly refers to the death of her father, Serge, and later still, “Premier enfant,” first child. It’s Gainsbourg’s own off-kilter autobiography mixed into the circle of life. Even the bass line comes from her past, lifted from “Je t’aime… moi non plus,” the biggest hit of her father and mother’s musical careers. It’s a nice touch to a personal song about life and death. For some of us, the first crowd may come before the first drink, but we all fall down at the end.
No translation is needed for “Deadly Valentine”, which is entirely in English and entirely one-dimensional. The verse and chorus are straightforward wedding vows; “From this day forward until death do us part” is repeated over and over again. One keeps waiting for a twist, but when it comes, it’s merely to say that Gainsbourg loves her partner so much that a wedding isn’t necessary. Yvan Attal, her partner of several decades, may have found this to be a compelling reveal, but the rest of us are more likely to feel a twinge of disappointment.
Rest is often incredibly personal, and the more raw the lyrics, the more incongruous the music. “Lying with You” is about lying next to her dead father. It features the kind of driving, haunting synths that have lately been associated with Stranger Things. “Kate” is about the death of Gainsbourg’s half-sister, and the minor-key verses give way to a major-key hook with a wordless, heavenly, “Bum bum bum bum!” The disco throwback dance song “Les Oxalis” is about visiting her sister’s grave.
In this context, the Paul McCartney-penned “Songbird in a Cage” sticks out like a misconjugated verb. It sounds like a Wings B-Side and, surrounded by achingly personal songs, comes off like so much fluff. The back end of Rest turns into a mid-tempo slog, with nary a ballad or banger to break things up.
With tighter editing, Rest could have soared, but perhaps the personal nature of the songs made those ruthless cuts impossible. Even so, there are many individual moments to treasure. Charlotte Gainsbourg has evolved as an artist, and Rest is a flawed but worthy statement.
Essential Tracks: “Rest”, “Ring a Ring O-Roses”, and “Kate”