Charlotte Gainsbourg - IRM

by Rich Morris Rating:8 Release Date:2010-01-25

In 2007, Charlotte Gainsbourg suffered a cerebral haemorrhage. Rather than gloss over this life-threatening episode, Gainsbourg has made it the centrepiece of her third album, IRM (the French equivalent of MRI). For this album, she has continued her method of acting as muse for male talents. On her last album, 2006's 5.55, the songs were provided by Jarvis Cocker, Air, and Neil Hannon. On IRM, it is Beck who has taken on the majority of the songwriting duties. What's interesting is that, given the personal and emotionally bleak subject matter, at no point does one get the queer sense that Gainsbourg is performing songs written by Beck channelling Gainsbourg. It suggests Gainsbourg has remained involved in the song writing process in some form since its beginning. She seems to have taken a Warhol-like approach to the album's construction; providing a brief for Beck based on her experiences, and then standing back to let him weave his interpretation of her vision.

Many tracks seem informed by a new awareness of mortality and transience without explicitly mentioning Gainsbourg's brush with death. 'Vanities' and first single 'Heaven Can Wait' both grapple with what is at stake and what becomes inessential in such situations. The former is a slow glacial number weighed down with portent, the latter a crunchy acoustic number whose boho hipster vibe positively reeks of Beck Hansen. It's no surprise that his vocals crop up on this track, shadowing Gainsbourg's observations on a girl who's fighting but "sliding down to the dregs of the world". This track and opener 'Master's Hands' are two of the album's breezier moments, the latter sounding very like Kate Bush in it's breathless, twirling clatter. In fact, Bush's own account of a theological, existential struggle on her classic 'Running Up that Hill (A Deal with God)' may have to provided something of a template for IRM's themes.

The album is also immensely satisfying on a musical level. The title track integrates a sample of an MRI machine to a tumultuous tribal stomp which recalls 60s electronic pioneers Silver Apples. 'Le Chat du Café des Artistes', with it's scything, dramatic strings and Gainsbourg's detached yet sexy vocal, is a classic Bond theme in waiting. 'Time of the Assassins' is a chilled, contemplative ballad counterpointed by some spooky organ which lets you know all is not as peaceful as it seems. Meanwhile, 'Dandelion' is the kind of chugging boogie that dear old Marc Bolan specialised in and 'Trick Pony' is a slice of raunchy Stooges rock.

It doesn't all turn out perfectly. The pretty, fey folk of 'Me and Jane Doe' fails to hold the attention, while 'Greenwich Mean Time' is a piece of irritating lo-fi electro nonsense which really doesn't deserve its place on the album. But this amounts to just a couple of gripes. IRM might be a death-obsessed album drawn from personal pain, but its deft and innovative music means you'll return to it again and again.

Richard Morris

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