5 Dec 2017

Charlotte Gainsbourg grapples with legacy and tragedy on Rest

From The Sampler, 7:30 pm on 5 December 2017

Releasing a duet with your dad at age 12 is a strange enough start to a musical career, let alone one called ‘Lemon Incest’. Serge Gainsbourg was no ordinary musician though, and neither is his daughter Charlotte. Now 46, she’s just released her fourth album, Rest, and it has to be said her father’s influence looms large.

Charlotte Gainsbourg - Rest

Charlotte Gainsbourg - Rest Photo: supplied

The opening track 'Ring A Roses' revolves around muted snare and bass, electric piano arpeggios and a deadpan vocal delivery – all things popularised in part by Serge in the sixties. 

It’s tempting to think the imitation here is intentional. The lyrics in the chorus are of course borrowed from the children’s nursery rhyme, and given the album’s focus on death, it’s easy to imagine the bit that grabbed Charlotte’s attention was the line "we all fall down".

She’s perhaps best known as an actor, starring in three typically traumatic films for director Lars Von Trier in recent years to great acclaim.

Her musical output has been considerably slower. There was the stopgap double-album Stage Whisper, made up of unreleased B-sides and live tracks in 2011, but Charlotte's last proper full length was IRM in 2009, written and produced by Beck.

For Rest, she’s turned to French electronic producer Sebastian, and the result is a very French-feeling album.

There’s a cinematic quality to many of the songs, a slightly ominous sense of drama.

Third track  'Kate' is one of many songs that directly address the death of Charlotte’s sister Kate in 2013, a presumed suicide.

Such intensely personal subject matter is presumably why Rest is Gainsbourg’s first album to feature lyrics she wrote herself, where in the past she’s left it to collaborators like Beck or Jarvis Cocker.

It’s worth noting that IRM was about a haemorrhage she suffered in 2007. Making albums is as good a form of therapy as any, I suppose.

And it’s hard not to think of Kate or indeed Serge, who died after a battle with alcoholism, when you hear lyrics like “My feet are hovering above ground, ready to follow” in the song 'Lying With You'.

“Shall we dream happy ever after” she goes on to say, and the sentiment is pretty clear.

But despite the album’s focus on death, there is fun to be had, albeit of a macabre variety.

'Deadly Valentine' invokes death in its title but also packs an infectious disco groove and a massive swaggering chorus.

Gainsbourg and Sebastian take the disco influence in a more esoteric direction in 'Songbird In A Cage'. 

If you think that title is a bit on the nose, it was actually written by Sir Paul McCartney in 2011, and later gifted to Charlotte. He also contributes drums, bass and guitar.

Elsewhere, Daft Punk's Guy de Homem Christo pops up to produce the title track 'Rest'.

It was the first song she wrote after Kate’s death, and it draws on one of Gainsbourg’s great strengths – her sense of stillness.

When singing she rarely strays too far outside her speaking register, and much like her acting, is able to do a lot with a little. She’s at her most powerful on 'Rest' when she drops to a literal whisper.

The album nears its end with a few tracks worked on by NZ ex-pat Connan Hosford, better known as Connan Mockasin.

He’s written for Gainsbourg in the past, as well as touring with her, and it’s easy to see why. His sense of whimsy compliments her woozy vocals perfectly on a song like 'Les Crocodiles'. 

But the most intimate, and devastating part comes right at the end when the song 'Les Oxalis', with lyrics about Gainsbourg visiting her sister’s grave, winds the album to a close.

Suddenly we switch to a domestic scene. It's an amateurish home recording of a small girl singing the alphabet.

It’s easy to draw conclusions about who the girl is, but in the end, it’s not important.

When an accompaniment of modern instrumentation comes crashing in to join her it feels like a summation of the album's themes.

It's a beautiful illustration of the present attempting to make peace with the past.