If you’re Charlotte Gainsbourg, how do you follow up 2009’s feel-good film of the year, Antichrist, wherein you graphically conduct genital mutilation of both yourself and co-star Willem Dafoe? You hook up with producer Beck for the album IRM (Elektra/Asylum, released Jan. 26), which in part addresses the brain surgery the French actress/chanteuse underwent following a water-skiing accident.
The result isn’t the Diamanda Galas shriek at the heavens that lesser talents might have succumbed to, but rather a sort of modern updating of the albums Nancy Sinatra once recorded under the guidance of producer/songwriter Lee Hazlewood. That IRM (the French term for an MRI) ends up largely sounding resolutely stuck in the ‘60s makes it an interesting, if not entirely successful, example of both Beck’s retro cool and Gainsbourg’s hippie sensibility.
As someone whose first major public exposure came with the song “Lemon Incest” — recorded when she was 12 with her father, singer/songwriter/provocateur Serge Gainsbourg, and obliquely dealing in an approving manner with both incest and pedophilia – Gainsbourg fille remains as a recording artist very much of her father’s, rather than her own, time. Much of IRM is delivered in the breathy, coquettish whisper that’s come to define “gamine”; lyrically she’s not above quoting The Beatles (“Looking through a glass onion” on the title track) and indulging in nursery rhyme structures (“Crooked cat, crooked mouse/We live together in a crooked, crooked house” in “Greenwich Mean Time”).
It’s when she strays from the Lost Little Girl routine that IRM works best. “Master’s Hands” has a nice way of getting across feeling like a puppet, especially when reminded of the medical circumstances that inspired the album via its robotic, tick-tock percussion, while “IRM” and “Greenwich Mean Time” overcome their lyrical clichés with a deeper, almost spoken-word approach heavily treated by Beck.
The Man himself shows up as Gainsbourg’s duet partner on “Heaven Can Wait,” an acoustic guitar/piano-driven portrait of a woman going mad (“They are trying to drive the escalator into the ground” is an arresting, if typically Beck-ian, image); elsewhere his influence is most heavily noticeable on “Trick Pony,” which sounds like a Modern Guilt outtake.
Other highlights include “Dandelion,” not a cover of the Rolling Stones song but a jauntily loping cowboy tune; “Le Chat du Café Des Artistes,” all foreboding John Barry strings and doomy piano; and “La Collectionneuse,” a bilingual trip through the looking glass that may be partially inspired by John Fowles’ novel The Collector, with jagged strings and an atonal piano part that nicely dissolves into disarray, underscoring Gainsbourg’s gentle vocal skipping into insanity.
More of that would have made IRM something beyond the pop curiosity (or product for Beck completists) that it is. Perhaps next time Gainsbourg will hook up with a producer more willing to drag her into the ‘10s.