Charlotte Gainsbourg has collaborated with other artists on all her albums and she knows how to pick ‘em, whether it’s her father, Serge Gainsbourg, on her debut album as a young girl or 2007’s 5:55 with musical compositions by the duo Air and lyrics co-penned by Jarvis Cocker. On her latest release (already out in France and other countries and due on January 26th in the U.S.) Charlotte has teamed up with Beck Hansen and the album liner notes credit him as producer and songwriter for all the material (except “Greenwich Mean Time” which was co-written with Charlotte and “Le Chat du Café des Artistes”).
Beck has sonically and vocally shape-shifted over the course of his own albums while still retaining his distinct abstracted presence, and on IRM his stamp is ‘audible’ on several songs due to the specific instrumentation, lyrics, and/or vocal tone. Charlotte herself becomes a vocal chameleon, changing from tender airiness to dispassionate distance to nonchalant contemplation to melancholic musing, depending on the song, while always keeping her hallmark sang-froid.
The airy fluidity of the piano-based arrangements and intimate lyrics on 5:55 are replaced here by Beck’s emotionally detached, sonically oblique take on matters of life and death in light of Charlotte’s experiences of suffering a brain hemorrhage and subsequently running through a battery of medical tests and undergoing surgery and a year-long recovery. For all that is revealed about Charlotte’s experiences via the songs on this album, there is always the knowledge that Beck is the songwriter, which raises the questions of how close Charlotte is to the lyrics, and if Beck has transcribed what Charlotte described to him with minimal interference, or if his own views and ideas have shaped the finished work and altered Charlotte’s original intent.
The brisk latticework of upbeat tinkering on “Master’s Hands” features a shaken sand rhythm, wood and metal click-clacks, fast-plucked guitar, bittersweet string line, the occasional drumbeat boom, and Charlotte sing-talking lightly and airily about someone or something that can “…pull my strings…”, likening living beings to puppets, with the idea that ultimately we are not in total control of ourselves in the ‘physical health’ sense and are at the mercy of the ‘master’, whoever, or whatever, that may be…
Lead-off single “IRM” dissects what Charlotte went through while being hospitalized, tested, and diagnosed with a brain hemorrhage, directly reflecting that clinical environment with a detached, rhythmic beat of springy, but clomping drums, cymbal crash, a periodic metallic, spinning reverberation, and Charlotte vigorously intoning the blunt, medically-oriented lines “Leave my head demagnetized / Tell me where the trauma lies.”
The impersonal tone disappears on “Le Chat du Café des Artistes”, a downcast, but heightened number with its main themes of the life of an artist and to not be forgotten, even after death. It starts off with Cranes-like, somber strings and dark piano notes, a ponderous beat, some guitar strum, and French lyrics that translate as “When we don’t laugh any longer, we don’t live any more.”, breathily and pensively sung by Charlotte as a sharp, slowly-drawn, ascending string line cuts into the verses, creating a suspenseful tension that is alleviated by a lush chorus of warmer, delicately-lifting strings.
“In The End” is a gentle, all-too-brief tune reminiscent of songs off 5:55 with sedate guitar strum, strings, bell tone notes, and Charlotte’s sweetly murmured vocals sliding higher over the bleak lyrics of “Help me to see what it’s all coming to.” and “Who’s to say it’s all for the best in the end?”
Second single “Heaven Can Wait” is a quasi-duet between Charlotte and Beck, augmented by an unhurried, heavily tromping beat and short-strummed guitar, piano, and tambourine hit that all follow the laid-back shuffling tempo, with muted horns coming in mid-way through the casually spun tune. Beck is at the forefront, sing-talking softly and lightly, while Charlotte is relegated to wispy accompaniment, vocalizing in the same tone so that it’s difficult to tease apart their vocals until the third verse which is all Charlotte.
Charlotte sounds like she’s channeling Beck on “Me and Jane Doe”, singing in a plain, clear, dispassionate tone. There is a strangely disorienting, fast-paced tempo, like that of an accelerated heartbeat, contrasted by slower, limpid, picked guitar, pattering globular notes and tings, and choral male vocals that materialize on the chorus. Locations like Rio del Sol and the Amazon, the desert and the sea are conjured up, along with cactus and plateaus, as the deceased, like the unknown “…Jane Doe and Rousseau…”, roam the landscape…
The introspective “Vanities” goes back to more familiar terrain for Charlotte, with picked harp and keening orchestral strings that rise, fade, and then build up again against steady-paced guitars. Charlotte’s vocals are hushed and slightly wavering as she sings about burning away what is unimportant in life and an instrumental passage flows through and then lapses into silence.
Picked acoustic guitar backs Charlotte’s upfront vocals on “Time of the Assassins”, as she sings about “giving up the ghost”, “flame that goes out”, and “sifting through ash” on the verses. The pace picks up on the fuller chorus with its hard guitar lines, organ notes, Ahhhing male vocals, and a dreamy Charlotte sighing about being raised “…from the dead”. The main theme taken from Charlotte’s real life experiences surfaces at the end of the song as Charlotte sings “Can something change / but still feel the same? / The beginning’s the end / I start all over again.”
Beck rears his neo-retro head on the smokin’ “Trick Pony”, a 1970s-sounding, stop-start rock number with a bottom-heavy beat provided by Charlotte’s son Ben, thick, low growls of bass, guitar flourishes, and Charlotte bringing it, all coolly sultry and superior, as everything works the groove to sexy effect.
A New York City grittiness is evoked on “Greenwich Mean Time”, even though the term refers to a universal time zone based in the U.K., with its brusque, dissonant, rhythmic clinking, clanking, and crashing sounds (along with a brief respite of light music box notes). Charlotte sing-talks with distanced, disdainful composure about “crooked minds” and a “crooked mouth”, while Beck joins in on the hard-to-shake, sing-song chorus and Charlotte’s daughter Alice talks through thick distortion at the end of the track.
“Dandelion” is a ‘Beckensian’ bluesy tune with a steadily loping beat, upright bass, and brushed drums accented sequentially by muted horns, guitar riffs, and pulled strings as Charlotte sings in a mid-range tone that “I’d make a wish / but I don’t think it’d come true.”
True to its title, “Voyage” goes on a “journey to the end of the world” and “the end of the night” replete with an urgent tribal beat, scraped and clicking sticks, fast-picked guitar, dramatic ascending and plunging strings, and occasional jungle bird chatter, with Charlotte vocalizing with gauzy poise, smoothly switching between French and English lyrics.
Album-ender “La Collectioneuse” has Charlotte at the piano, restlessly playing a repeated run of notes amid starry arcade game shimmer, a low-key beat, and bass line. Charlotte sing-talks breathily, and a vocal layer is added where she glides up the scales in a ghostly, Bjork-like refrain. Strings that follow the piano notes are introduced, as well as a sighing male vocal backdrop. The second half of song features Charlotte reciting poet Guillaume Apollinaire’s lines of poetry in French, and while they are not Charlotte’s own words, they seem to capture her sentiments about the fragility of life, the fleeting nature of time, equating death with night, and, in translation, that she “had the courage to look back at the ‘cadaver’ of my days.” and to “Remember that I am waiting for you.”