First published at https://www.13thfloor.co.nz/charlotte-gainsbourg-rest-because/#more-98354
Sung mostly in French, Charlotte Gainsbourg’s new album, Rest, is no simple melancholic melodrama. There’s no bitchin’, cussin’ or swooning; no mumbling oaths or references to languid loss or betrayed consciousness. Instead, we find her caught up in a tangle of grief, history and family legacies. It is both personal and intimate, yet cinematic and more oversized than an IMAX screening.
Being the daughter of English actress Jane Birkin and French musical icon/perv/provocateur Serge Gainsbourg Charlotte Gainsbourg never had a chance. With her family constantly in the spotlight, it was never likely that she would grow up to be a bank teller. Even as a young actor, the talent apple never fell far from the tree. She debuted on the silver screen as a precocious adolescent as Catherine Deneuve’s daughter in the film Paroles et musique (1984). Two years later she scooped a César Award (the French Oscar’s) for “Most Promising Actress” for L’effrontée. Since then she’s made dozens of French films and several more for controversial filmmaker Lars Von Trier.
Her music career also started with some attention when she sang with her father on the song Lemon Incest at the age of 12 and released an album with her father at the age of 15. Since then her releases have been more sporadic, but thanks to her collaborations with Jarvis Cocker, Air and Daft Punk, her album releases have become global events. The 2006 effort 5:55 was largely written by Cocker and the French electro-pop duo Air. And then she topped that one with 2009’s IRM, written and produced by Beck, apparently inspired by Gainsbourg’s 2007 head injury.
Like her father, her albums have been consistently lush, forward-thinking, well-crafted, challenging with their ideology, and pristine in their recording. She moves between simple guitars to overt orchestration as if it was simply an extension of her imagination. And you can’t discount her sexy, breathy, delicate and vulnerable vocals which often sound like a very young Jane Birkin – no surprise really, as all of this is part of the Gainsbourg family trademark.
However, despite all of this, as an artist, we’ve never really seen the real Charlotte: – her feelings and her perspectives and observations. She prefers to hide amongst the music and lyrics of others. These individual stories are what makes us human, performance is only half of it. There’s only so much you can say with aesthetics. At some point, as a singer you must reveal and uncover with your own words, to let us know what’s really in there.
And so, on this new album Rest, Gainsbourg finally opens up and gives us her story, partially inspired by her grief following the death of her sister Kate Barry, who fell from the window of her Paris apartment in 2013. This is the first time she’s written her own lyrics, which move fluidly between French and English as she laments her sister, idolises her father and, through the eyes of her children laments how time passes so quickly and how life is so fleeting (the deliciously lush Dans Vos Airs Gainsbourg reflects on being a parent). On the surface. It all sounds a bit morbid and laconic but somehow her ‘Frenchness’ manages to make it all very beautiful.
The album’s title reveals all of the meaning: In English “Rest,” evoking eternal rest; in death; on the gravestone and in the religious connotations of the afterlife. However, in French when Gainsbourg sings, “reste,” she means “stay”, remain, do not depart, eternally present – constant, even. Of all here, the title song was written in the closest proximity to her sister’s passing. It seems like she is simultaneously laying the body to rest and willing her to remain. “Reste avec moi s’il te plaît” (Stay with me please). It is a song is something of a low-key but slightly sci-fi -lullaby dedicated to lost loved ones. It was penned by and produced by Daft Punk’s Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, and, naturally shines like a beacon. It compliments Gainsbourg’s whispered vocals, and her intriguing lyrics that tell of ‘walking on air’ and ‘moonlit skies’. And because of its reserved, economic treatment, it’s a clear standout.
It has been revealed that Gainsbourg’s sister may have fallen intentionally. If so, that makes the hurt even more intense. And in her song Kate, which is sung in French, Gainsbourg yearns for their life remain untouched; to remain together; to continue as it was: “On d’vait vieillir ensemble” (We should grow old together.)
Elsewhere, Gainsbourg incorporates childhood memories, playground games like on the dirge-like song Ring-a-Ring o’ Roses and fans of ex-Beatle Sir Paul will sit up and take notice of Songbird in a Cage, which was written and performed with McCartney, no less. And no surprise that it sounds just like one of his, too.
Sonically, if that is the right way to consider this, Rest is composed and produced under the watchful eye of Frank Ocean’s producer DJ SebastiAn (aka Sebastian Akchoté) who applies a rather predictable cinematic quality to the album’s electro-pop tracks such as the urgent and ominous Lying With You. Given that I’ve only just seen Branagh’s recent remake of Ms AG’s Murder on The Orient Express, I was instantly reminded of the film when I heard the playful Rococo-tinged number I’m A Lie. The track grows quietly on your subconscious, like the gnawing in Poroit’s brain cells when he’s problem solving. That’s probably helped along by the vaguely creepy synth hook paired with lyrics (in French, again) that describe physiological distress of longing and desire. “J’entretiens l’inconfort / À l’allure qui dort “(I maintain the discomfort / At the pace that sleeps) and later in the song she sings “Je m’installe sans pudeur / Face à mes repentirs / Vieux tracas, tendres peurs” (I settle without modesty / Facing my repentance / Old worries, tender fears).
DJ SebastiAn is responsible for the big beats on this album. From funky bass lines and sturdy, meaty beats to sweeping orchestral synths and some very elegant keyboard intervals he adds the colours that make up this variable palate. Although he’s not alone, co-producing alongside Danger Mouse and our own son, Connan Mockasin, plus some strings and horns arranged by Owen Pallett.
Still, it’s DJ SebastiAn’s versatility that surprises when he resets poet Sylvia Plath’s lines to a shimmering disco thumper – totally unexpected. Sylvia Says is a perplexingly funky but delightful nod to Plath’s poem Mad Girl’s Love Song (1953) (which feature the lines: “I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead/ I lift my lids and all is born again. / (I think I made you up inside my head.”
On her six-minute epic, Deadly Valentine, Gainsbourg she appropriates traditional wedding vows and delivers them in an unnerving, half-whispered/half sung manner that reminds me of David Lynch movies. Only the sweeping strings that swell the drama save it from diving deep into Blue Velvet territory. Only just. With images of demented nuptials and brides floating in water, close to drowning, close to ascending, the metaphors for grief are endless and overwhelmingly French. For only they could do this so well and get away with it.
Like Charlotte Gainsbourg’s entire career, Rest is imperfect, but remains beguiling and important. She almost wants to produce music that is slightly damaged and incomplete, lest you become satisfied and move on and away to someone else. Now that she’s pouring more of heart into her music, the need to remain compelling to give voice and an audience is more and more necessary. Yet, songs as deep as these also affirm life, transforming individual and personal suffering into something public. It’s a brave woman that can do that. There are few things are more terrifying than exposing raw wounds to others.