Charlotte Gainsbourg was born to make music. The songstress and occasional actress is the daughter of two of the 20th century’s most gifted European artists, giving her the genes and the connections to fruitfully pursue her own creative endeavors. Her father, the late French pop singer Serge Gainsbourg, was one of the most exalted figures in the ’70s Parisian rock scene. Charlotte’s mother Jane Birkin is equally talented, renowned for her own musical and directorial pursuits and as a frequent collaborator with Serge.
With such a formidable artistic pedigree, it’s surprising that IRM, Gainsbourg’s most recent effort, is only her third full-length album. The album and its 2006 predecessor, 5:55, follow a 20-year gap in the singer’s recording history. Perhaps apprehensive of endless comparisons to her parents, Gainsbourg spent her formative years pursuing creative works outside the realm of music, before finally returning to her singing career. Produced — and almost entirely written — by Beck, her latest record is an engaging collaboration of talent and a testament to Gainsbourg’s own artistic roots.
A near fatality inspired Gainsbourg to record her latest album. After a minor fall while water-skiing, she suffered a brain hemorrhage that nearly killed her. In the ensuing months, Gainsbourg became increasingly preoccupied with her recovery, undergoing a series of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans to check on her brain’s recuperation. This brush with death jolted the singer toward a period of artistic creation, which led her to collaborate with musical virtuoso Beck.
Drawing inspiration from the MRI’s hissing distortion, the record is an atmospheric wonder that touches upon various disparate genres, from rugged blues to Francophone ballads to angsty rock‘n’roll. The album’s title, IRM, is the French version of MRI. While Beck’s influence is clearly present, Gainsbourg dominates throughout and the album is decidedly her own work.
A simplistic banjo chord opens the album on first track “Master’s Hand.” Despite the song’s bluesy feel, it hardly defines the rest of the record. Oscillating between Gainsbourg’s breathy whispers and distorted vocals, the song adds a spark of experimentation to an otherwise uncomplicated track.
The succeeding track, “IRM,” takes the album in an entirely different direction. Drawing inspiration from the album’s namesake MRI soundwaves, this abrasive cut alternates between jarring electro-scratches and Gainsbourg’s steady voice before erupting into a pure atmospheric haze. The sharp juxtaposition of these introductory tracks signals the album’s diversity, preparing the listener for an electronic-tinged trip through various musical genres. Although the varied mix of styles can feel abrupt at times, it allows the two artists to explore the depth of their creative potential.
The remaining cuts off of IRM exemplify Gainsbourg’s and Beck’s willingness to experiment within the confines of established musical genres. From booming rocker chords (“Trick Pony”) to heavily distorted sonics (“Greenwich Mean Time”) to wistful balladry (“In The End”), the work crosses into various musical planes, relying on Beck’s inspired direction to guide the path. The two artists collaborate directly on the cutesy “Heaven Can Wait,” featuring a spirited duet that recalls some of Elliott Smith’s more optimistic efforts.
The brooding “Le Chat Du Café Des Artistes” is the sole song written entirely by Gainsbourg. Sung in her native French, the track combines her fluttery vocals with sharp strings, evoking a caustic tension between the singer and the instrument. Lacking Beck’s signature electro-beats and distorted touches, the track is drastically different from IRM’s remaining selections. Nonetheless, Gainsbourg’s exquisite voice still radiates without these embellishments, proving that Beck’s absence isn’t necessarily a detriment.
On her latest album, Gainsbourg has finally cut away from her parents’ legacy and now stands as a musician in her own right. While Beck’s participation in IRM is evident throughout, Gainsbourg’s voice gives the album life and stands as its most important element. By exploring a multiplicity of genres, Gainsbourg has branded herself as a multifaceted musician with enormous potential.