How appropriate that Charlotte Gainsbourg’s beautiful, enticingly abstract new album I.R.M. follows her brave, ugly turn in Lars von Trier’s violent, psychological-disembowelment-as-film Antichrist. Gainsbourg, who walked out on the furthest limb with von Trier, won best actress at the Cannes Film Festival last year. Now, in an inspired partnership with Beck, she has released what might be one of the best albums of 2010.
Not unlike Marianne, France’s feminine allegory of liberty and reason, Gainsbourg has shown a rebellious streak throughout her career. She is a creature of dualities: an Anglo-French actress-singer, a mainstream-meets-independent-film thespian and iconic fashionista/une jolie-laide spawn of Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin. She has negotiated that tricky dichotomy with insouciant, intelligent, sloe-eyed grace.
But following her near-death experience after suffering a cerebral haemorrhage in 2007, Gainsbourg has trebled her ferocious creative choices, perhaps seeking a ‘whole’ within her fragmented artistic self. Weirdly, her risky leap into Antichrist and her equally brash decision to work with Beck on an album inspired by her medical scare feel intrinsically connected.
Gainsbourg gave herself over to von Trier; she trusts Beck in a similar fashion, offering him full reins as producer and lyricist whilst focusing on the ‘character’ of each song, as any good actress would. The result is magnificent. Gainsbourg’s willowy, whispery vocals take on a vigor, complexity and dimension only hinted at on 2006’s 5:55, an otherwise decent collaboration with Air and Jarvis Cocker.
When singing in French, as on the sexy thrum of ‘Voyage’ or the robust cover of Jean-Pierre Ferland’s ‘Le Chat Du CafÃ© Des Artistes,’ Gainsbourg’s voice does recall that of her own mother or Francoise Hardy. But when navigating English lyrics, as on the menacing, metallic pulse of ‘I.R.M.’ (which is the French abbreviation for M.R.I.), the sing-song snap of ‘Me and Jane Doe,’ or the percussive kick of ‘Trick Pony,’ she slips from sheer Gallic gossamer to black leather, hurtling into each song with muscular force.
In turn, Beck, seemingly invigorated by Gainsbourg, creates a mesmerizing sonic landscape that embraces the cinematic grandeur of the album. Chiming bells, ghostly choruses, the errant pluck of a mandolin, drum loops, bluesy grooves, dirty guitar licks, meandering piano and an icy wash of synths rumble and swirl about Gainsboug’s fragile-and-fierce vocals, gently caressing, prodding and dissecting each track.
I.R.M. is such an accomplished, satisfying album and a triumph for both Beck and Gainsbourg, that it would be disappointing if this were simply a one-off project. Hopefully, this intriguing pair will reconvene as a recording duo; if not, it would be a damn shame.