You may know her as Serge’s little girl. Or perhaps you’re more familiar with her acting and have seen her in Antichrist… or The Science of Sleep… or Ma Femme Est Une Actrice. Or maybe to you she’s Jane Birkin’s daughter. Hey, possibly you only know her for her music and fell in love with her ethereal 2006 album, 5:55. But with so many fingers in so many pies, who actually is Charlotte Gainsbourg?
Well, musically at least, it would seem she isn’t too sure either. Début album, Charlotte For Ever, from 1986, was written by her father, French perv-pop legend, Serge, and 5:55 was primarily the work of Air and Jarvis Cocker, with a bit of Neil Hannon thrown in for good measure. Now, IRM has all songs bar one written and produced by everyone’s favourite Danish Scientologist, Beck. This career trajectory alone could mean Gainsbourg struggles to be taken seriously as a recording artist. However, she appears to act as a muse for a variety of people and as such, gets the breaks many singers would give their right arm for. Mind you, Daddy being so highly revered throughout the music world can’t exactly hurt.
That’s not meant to sound bitter, misogynist or conceited because as long as no animals are harmed during the process, who cares about anything so long as the tunes are good? Life’s too short for hipsterish concerns of authenticity and meaningfulness. It’s a subjective medium; that’s how it goes.
Having said all that, it’s unfortunate that IRM is a bloated, self-congratulatory, directionless mess of an album. The mechanics and the back-story aren’t everything, but it’s preferable to believe our singers aren’t just puppets on strings and actually have some say in what goes on their records. Gainsbourg’s level of involvement in IRM is unknown, of course, and any viewpoint held by the listener is speculative at best, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if a press release came out stating that Gainsbourg just turned up on recording day and sang Beck’s words off an autocue.
It makes the task of the reviewer somewhat more complex to report that, for an awful lot of the record, IRMis just dull. 5:55 may have been laid-back, but this just sounds disinterested. La Collectionneuse is atonal,Time of the Assassins has Gainsbourg’s voice buried so deep in the mix it’s barely audible and, weirdly, on Me and Jane Doe, her voice sounds noticeably flat. Lyrically, Beck appears otherwise engaged, tossing away a bunch of clichés and half-phrases, sometimes with a nod to The Beatles (“find happiness from a gun”) or, on one occasion, just blatantly copying The Fab Four (“looking through a glass onion”).
The more listenable tracks on IRM tend to be more interesting than enjoyable, but there are a handful worthy of further investigation. Heaven Can Wait (a duet with Beck) was an obvious candidate for lead single and is certainly a toe-tapper while Le Chat du Café des Artistes (the only song not penned by Beck) would fit snugly on 5:55. The title track is the most alluring of the collection and sounds not dissimilar to Portishead’s powerful Machine Gun. "IRM" is the French initialism for an MRI scanner and the album is so-called due to Gainsbourg’s recent health scare (she suffered a brain haemorrhage in 2007). The title track apes the sounds of hospitals and machines to great effect, capturing the feeling of fear and claustrophobia perfectly.
What stands out most about IRM, though, is the lack of focus. Beck, or possibly Gainsbourg, herself, can’t seem to work out which path to follow and what the album should sound like. Thus, we have quasi-5:55 tracks, songs that sound a bit like Beck, wheezing country, French traditional chanteuse-style numbers and, most bafflingly of all, an ill-advised two-song excursion into garage rock. Sounding like a second-rate Kills or a Raveonettes without the fun, Gainsbourg embarrassingly postures her way throughTrick Pony and Greenwich Mean Time. It may give IRM a much-needed kick up the backside, but it’s unconvincing, tinny, and when Gainsbourg sings the word “chou-fleur” in an English accent, it’s pretty much time to pack up and go home.
It’s fair to say that “underwhelmed” is the word that most springs to mind with IRM. It’s not a completely futile exercise - there are some decent tracks - but it falls far short of the quality of its predecessor. After discussing accusations of nepotism earlier, it now sounds hypocritical to say you’d expect better from someone with such heritage, but that’s how it feels. There’s a fantastic album inside Charlotte Gainsbourg, or, given her discography, perhaps it would be more accurate to say there’s a fantastic Charlotte Gainsbourg album inside someone else. Here’s hoping it’s found soon.