Posted: August 27th, 2008
“Ugliness has more going for it than beauty. It endures.”
“The man who looked like a louche turtle cross-bred with a dissipated, chain-smoking wolf was also a singer, songwriter, actor, painter, cutting-edge composer, Eurovision Song Contest winner, novelist, screnwriter, film director, provocateur, sentimentalist, populist, intellectual, and the single most important person in the history of French pop music.”
Sylvie Simmons, Mojo Magazine
I wish I could speak better French, so that I might fully understand the words on Histoire de Melody Nelson. According to my trusted French friends, Gainsbourg’s lyrics are pure poetry, bestowing a level of brilliance to his music that I literally can’t comprehend. But that hasn’t deterred me. Familiar only with the bare facts of Melody Nelson‘s darkly sensual story, my imagination performs a miraculous feat of translation, in which I feel the hidden meaning behind Serge’s songs, losing myself in his impenetrable lyrics like a voyeur in a foreign land. I listen on, unsure of what I’m hearing, but titillated nonetheless by all the obvious decadence.
French or otherwise, you don’t have to speak the language to experience Melody Nelson‘s incredibly great music, but a little backstory certainly helps. Taken together, the seven songs on the album form a lurid tale of obsessive love told with extraordinary intelligence and humor, making it the musical equivalent of Nabakov’s novel, Lolita. The album is about a lecherous, middle-aged, Rolls-Royce driving Frenchman (Serge, of course) who runs into a virginal teenage cyclist-vixen (played by his young and beautiful British-actor wife, Jane Birkin, who sings on the album and appears on its cover seductively clutching a rag doll against her bare breasts â€”hello dolly!). Serge the hunter stalks his prey, and with seduction comes love, which is consummated at “L’Hotel Particulier” (and for us all to hear on “En Melody”). The affair ends in rock-opera tragedy, with the flighty Melody killed in a plane crash, leaving behind a shattered wreck of a man to tell us his harrowing tale on “Cargo Culte.” These scintillating details should provide enough grist to set any good Anglo-Saxon imagination grinding. What language barrier?
Story aside, the music on Melody Nelson is way ahead of its timeâ€”an experimental blending of spoken-word vocals, lushly epic pop strings, soaring choir voices, funk-flavored rock grooves and loud guitar. According to Beck, the album is “one of the greatest marriages of rock band and orchestra…It’s very cool and its dynamic is geniusâ€”there’s this band that’s completely rocking on this almost acid tangent, but they’re buried in the mix with him (Gainsbourg) whispering on top, and he’s the loudest thing on it.”
A perfectly realized concept album, a sonically inventive poem of perversion, Melody Nelson was hailed by few critics of its time, failing to become a hit, even in France. Today we can better appreciate its magnitude, with disciples like Air and David Holmes successfully slipping the Serge sound into the musical mainstream.
Histoire de Melody Nelson stands as one of the shortest essential albums in rock history (my only complaint, if you can call it that), with a total running time of 27:06. Still I warn you: spend a good half-hour with it, and you might soon start wanting French lessons.
- Serge Gainsbourg – Guitar, Piano, Vocals
- Jane Birkin – Vocals
- Jean-Claude Vannier – Arranger, Direction, Orchestra Director
- Melody (Gainsbourg) – 7:32
- Ballade de Melody Nelson (Gainsbourg/Vannier/Vannier) – 2:00
- Valse de Melody (Gainsbourg) – 1:31
- Ah! Melody (Gainsbourg/Vannier) – 1:47
- L’Hotel Particulier (Gainsbourg) – 4:05
- En Melody (Gainsbourg/Vannier) – 3:25
- Cargo Culte (Gainsbourg) – 7:37
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