Sayan Ghosh: Serge Gainsbourg and the art of French folk

Sunday, January 21, 2018 - 4:57pm

“I’ve succeeded at everything except my life.” Somehow, this statement rings true for the man who coined it, Serge Gainsbourg. Provocative, clever, intriguing and singular are just some of the words that can attempt to explain one of the most popular and influential singer-songwriters to ever live. They can also be used to describe his 1971 album Histoire de Melody Nelson, a perfect introduction to his rich discography.

Gainsbourg was born in 1928 in Paris to Jewish-Ukranian parents, spending his adolescence under the shadow of Nazi-occupied France. Blending a series of genres from the traditional French chanson to the (at the time) increasingly popular rock and funk, he created a style of music that was unprecedented and unique — accompanied by lyrics that were clever, dark and sensual. He eventually grew into one of the biggest celebrities on the French and world stage, having highly publicized relationships with Jane Birkin and Brigitte Bardot, fathering actor and musician Charlotte Gainsbourg with the former.

Running at just less than half an hour, Histoire de Melody Nelson is a self-contained concept album in which Gainsbourg narrates the story of a middle-aged man who accidentally collides his car with the bicycle of the teenage Melody Nelson (“Princess of shadows, cursed archangel, Modern Amazon”) as well as that of the ensuing romance. The lyrics and subject matter are typical Gainsbourg: seductive yet repellent, rich with description and filled with worldplay. Gainsbourg’s voice, barely above a whisper at certain points, simply glides over the instrumentals. They resemble spoken word narration more often than actual singing, and you can practically envision Gainsbourg sitting in front of you with his trademark disheveled look and a cigarette in his hand. He is joined by Jane Birkin for “Melody,” “Ballade de Melody Nelson” and “Cargo Culte,” who similarly pops in and out, barely above a whisper.

Despite the lyrics playing a large part, the album is still a rewarding listen for non-French speakers. Composer Jean-Claude Vannier provides a set of lush, operatic orchestral arrangements. “L’hôtel particulier” features the best example, as most of it simply features Gainsbourg slowly describing a mysterious mansion (with “long endless passages, spiral stairways decorated with Baroque bronzes, golden angels”) with the backing of a bass guitar and slightly syncopated guitar line. However, at the end of each verse, strings suddenly appear and beautifully accent Gainsbourg’s final description. The last third of the song features only the strings, beckoning the listener to fill in what transpires after Gainsbourg finishes his tale.

Histoire de Melody Nelson has had an immeasurable impact on both French pop music, as well as genres such as trip-hop, even showing up as a sample in a De La Soul song. It as an album as complex and filled with contradictions as the man himself, and a must-listen for any fan of pop music.