Saturday, April 08, 2006

Serge Gainsbourg: "History of Melody Nelson"

Over the past few weeks, I've been getting into Serge Gainsbourg's music. I'd always heard his name mentioned as a major influence on stuff that I liked, most notably Dan the Automator's Lovage, one of my favorite albums of all time. And I really liked his stuff as I got into it. "Je T'aiem...mon non plus" is an incredible song, definitely an inspiration on Lovage. "Bonnie and Clyde" I had heard in Irma Vep, but I was surprised to hear that it was his song, since it sounded very modern.

I really liked those two songs, and the other stuff on those albums was pretty good, but I wasn't prepared for just how good the album "History of Melody Nelson" would be. The album is unquestionably his masterwork, one of those albums where the songs on their own are good, but working together they form one cohesive, album length work. This is partially due to the fact that, like many great albums of the 70s, this is a concept album.

I think the concept album gets a bad rap, if it's an excuse to write a bunch of poorly conceived songs that tell a story, then it's bad. But, if you use a concept as a way of building themes and cohesion within the album, that's a good thing. Even more than a story, I like concept albums because they frequently are structured with themes and motifs repeating, something that this makes use of, and is also prominent in "The Wall" or Green Day's "American Idiot." It's always good to make the album into a larger work than just a bunch of songs, and even if there's not a coherent story, the grander ambition is usually evident. In the case of "Melody Nelson," I don't speak French, so I couldn't really follow the story, but I was still able to follow the emotions and instrumental motifs.

However, the basic concept is quite notable. The album chronicles the story of a man who hits a 15 year old girl, Melody Nelson, with his car, then begins a sexual relationship with her until she dies in a plane crash. This is odd territory for an album, but it fits perfectly with Gainsbourg's dirty old man persona, and I'd imagine that the concept was likely a bit less troubling in France in 1971 than in America in 2005. And of course being an album, you don't really have to deal with any of the moral consequences of what's going on.

Even without understanding the lyrics, you can get the idea of what's going on. Jane Birkin guests as Melody, and the interplay between her and Gainsbourg during her cameos is fantastic. I love male/female interplay within songs, it works great here and on "Je T'aime," and is one of the crucial elements to the success of Lovage.

Gainsbourg uses a mainly spoken word style, which reminds me of Isaac Hayes' "Hot Buttered Soul." That's actually the album that this is most reminiscent of, both have really dynamic bass lines, slowly building songs and a blend of spoken word and sung vocals from the performers. Both albums draw a lot of on prog rock and psychedelic funk references in building their sound. Hayes turns this into the epic 12 minute version of "Walk on By," one of the greatest songs ever recorded.

For Gainsbourg, it turns into two stunning tracks, the opener, "Melody" and the closer, "Cargo Culte." They're variations on the same theme, each starting with a funk bassline, then slowly building with screaming electric guitars and great drum work. On "Melody," Serge's vocals are backed by a string section, while "Cargo Culte" brings in a choir.

I love how audacious these tracks are, each over 7 minutes, full of gorgeous instrumental sections that you just don't hear anymore. People may crack on the excesses of 70s rock, but listening to a song like "Melody," you hear a grandeur that just isn't present in rock today. At this point there wasn't the strict line between genres, so within one song Gainsbourg goes between funk, rock and orchestral arrangements. Right from the opening notes of that bass line, I was in love with the album.

I focused on those two songs because they're the most impressive, but the stuff in the middle is pretty impressive as well. "Ballad of Melody Nelson" is a catchy, more straightforward pop song, again featuring some great interplay between Birkin and Gainsbourg. "En Melody" was the other highlight for me, a fantastic instrumental which builds up, accompanied by Melody's moaning.

It's a short album, but I feel like Gainsbourg accomplishes everything he sets out to do, and because of the cohesion of the album, it feels more substantial than his albums that are just a bunch of tracks. This is a more ambitious work and one that is a complete success.

The album still sounds fresh, if someone told me it was recorded last year, I'd believe it, and that's probably due to the fact that it's an extremely influential album. Lovage was a clear antecedent, and in this album you can hear a lot of where Air came from, particularly with Moon Safari. That smooth, lounge rock mixed with strong backing bass is something Gainsbourg had all worked out here.

After listening to the album, I checked out the English translation of the lyrics, and they're quite good. I wish I knew French so I could really understand what he's saying, but even in the translated version, you can get what he's going for. One line, describing Ms. Nelson from the end of "Melody" pretty much sums up Gainsbourg:

"Melody Nelson has red hair
And it's her natural color."

Serge, you can sing about whatever you want as long it's housed in the incredible music that makes up this album.

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