(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #9 – released March 24, 1971. Originally posted on Kriofske Mix, 7/30/2014)
Track listing: Melody / Ballade De Melody Nelson / Valse De Melody / Ah! Melody / L’hotel Particulier / En Melody / Cargo Culte
I do not speak any French. At this point in my life, I doubt I’ll ever learn the language. Some might argue that an album with lyrics almost entirely in French (save for a few isolated phrases) would not contain much meaning for me unless I spoke the language and understood its nuances; my teenage self would have agreed with that. However, as a young adult falling further down the rabbit hole in seeking out unfamiliar music, I gradually realized that it was mostly irrelevant if I couldn’t comprehend the words, as long as something else in the music resonated with me—a vocalist, a melody, a sensibility, an aural palette, whatever. Certainly I might get more out of what the singer’s saying if I could literally follow along, but I learned it need not deter me from altogether enjoying what feelings the music was trying to express.
I first heard of Serge Gainsbourg via COMIC STRIP, an indispensible compilation of songs from the late 1960s, the commercial peak of his career. I instantly took to this totally groovy, nudge-nudge, wink-wink, irony-laden music, from the heavy-breathing worldwide hit “Je T’aime… Moi Non Plus” to nonsense jive such as “Ford Mustang” and the Brigitte Bardot-assisted, onomatopoeic title track. Reviewing it a decade ago, I rather foolishly suggested that this single disc provided “all the Serge you’ll ever need.” Then, I read A Fistful of Gitanes, Sylvie Simmons’ slim but entertaining Gainsbourg biography and found out about this 1971 album, considered by Simmons and seemingly everyone else to be his masterpiece. I had to buy it as an import, as it was out of print in the US at the time. As I first listened to it (at home during a torrential downpour, I remember), it didn’t immediately replace COMIC STRIP as my go-to Gainsbourg. Moodier and far less frivolous than the stuff that preceded it, HISTOIRE DE MELODY NELSON didn’t provide as easy an “in” to Gainsbourg’s peculiar mystique.
As an album, however, it’s one of the most cohesive and conceptually meticulous that we’ll be discussing here. Unless one counts the medley on side two of ABBEY ROAD, this is our first concept album, and the premise is a doozy: middle-aged Frenchman (obv. a Gainsbourg stand-in) accidentally runs into (but does not hurt) a fourteen-year-old British girl on a bike with his Rolls Royce. Immediately infatuated with her, he seduces her, they fuck, and on her solo return to England her plane crashes, leaving her dead and him in mourning. Gainsbourg relates the tale in seven tracks that last a mere 28 minutes; to modern ears, this may seem too brief for a full-length album (it’s still longer than NILSSON SINGS NEWMAN) but another minute (or five or ten) would only dilute what is a rigidly structured, sustained, poetic work that feels neither slim nor bloated. Given the controversial subject matter (lusting after and having sex with a minor!), it’s doubtful Gainsbourg would’ve gotten away with much more.
Even before I recently looked up the lyrics’ English translation online, I had little difficulty getting the gist of what this album was about—while sporting a trim narrative (and sound, as we will soon see), HISTOIRE DE MELODY NELSON is strikingly expressive enough for most listeners to figure it out. “Melody” kicks off the album with a rubbery bass, percussion unfurling at a near-strut and a slightly strung-out, distorted electric guitar over a four chord vamp that goes on for over seven minutes. Gainsbourg soon appears, his lyrics spoken rather than sung in an audible whisper that’s nonetheless still on top of everything else. It all feels somewhat sleazy and also a little too sober. Then, at the three minute mark, Jean-Claude Vannier’s lush strings first appear, but they do not swallow the rest of the song up. Instead, they thrillingly surface in a series of staccato punctures, reemerging and vanishing repeatedly as the song goes loud-soft-loud-soft before finally reaching a crescendo, followed by a dramatic pause of just strings as we (and the narrator) are introduced to “Melody. Melody Nelson,” spoken in a girlish trill by Gainsbourg’s then paramour, 24-year-old British actress/singer Jane Birkin. Although a decade older, Birkin is Melody, or at least her inspiration—that’s her on the cover, topless, wearing jeans and a red wig, clutching a favorite childhood toy to obscure her breasts and the fourth-month-old baby bump who will become her and Gainsbourg’s daughter, Charlotte.
After seven minutes of detailing this meet-cute, Gainsbourg then sings Melody’s praises over a mini-suite of three short songs, each one two minutes or less. Like “Melody”, “Ballade De Melody Nelson” also begins with a prominent bassline, but then shifts into a more traditional love song, with Birkin providing the vocal hook, again intoning her alter-ego’s name. “Valse de Melody” is indeed a waltz and the album’s only instance where the strings remain a constant presence, carrying the, um, melody. “Ah! Melody” is another ballad and an all-out declaration of lust/love accented by a classy trumpet in its second verse; it also displays some trademark Gainsbourg wit and wordplay by alternating the word “Melody” to “malady” at one point. This mini-suite is the album at its brightest, gentlest and most approachable.
It doesn’t last. “L’hotel Particulier” (roughly, “The Private Mansion”) resumes the smutty funk strut of “Melody” with a vengeance: with a brooding, one-note hook repeated on bass and guitar, Gainsbourg again speaks rather than sings the lyrics, except on the final line of each verse, where he’s accompanied by strings. The song is a processional through “stairs, hallways with no end, one after another” to a room that contains a bed with rococo-carved columns. As before, the strings pierce the rhythm-section foundation, opening up the song rather than smothering it. Lone touches such as a brief, startling piano here or some organ coloring there add even more texture and tension until the song’s final thirty seconds, where the strings seem to wrap themselves around the rhythm section as Gainsbourg sighs “Mel-o-deeeee”, preparing to consummate the relationship.
The instrumental “En Melody” immediately follows at a much quicker tempo than anything before (it’s a rave-up in comparison). The track’s title and its placement on the album all but spells out that this is when the sex happens—made even more explicit midway through by snatches of Birkin screeching and giggling over the two-chord funk-rock arrangement (though rest assured, they’re not actually orgasmic cries of passion but Birkin’s visceral reactions to Gainsbourg tickling her). The song soon stops abruptly after a three-note string filigree, followed by one last iteration of its main guitar riff, then only an ominous, blowing wind. Gainsbourg’s voice returns, and he reveals Melody’s tragic plane crash.
The final song, “Cargo Culte”, is a negative-image bookend to “Melody” (and also seven minutes long). It begins with the earlier song’s exact same instruments and four chord progression, but something seems off. What was once brisk and lively is now lethargic and reeking of desperation (even though the tempo remains the same). Gainsbourg goes on and on about the so-called “Cargo Cults” of the Melanesian Islands during World War II, fantasizing that they will find the his lost love’s wreckage. Fulfilling the role the strings played in “Melody”, a chorale of ghostly voices appears about half-way through, then repeatedly vanishes and reappears, building in intensity, eventually doing what the strings could not—consume Gainsbourg’s voice and the rhythm section, finally rising and falling over death-knell drums.
Lust and love and sex and death—in less than a half-hour, we’ve covered considerable ground even if the album’s musical bookend structure makes it seem like we’ve barely walked around the block. An even more stunning achievement, however, is in how ahead-of-its-time HISTOIRE DE MELODY NELSON sounds. A flop upon initial release (even in France, it sold a mere 15,000 copies), it proved strangely influential to many artists who surfaced only after Gainsbourg’s death in 1991. You can hear it in Air’s MOON SAFARI, Beck’s “Paper Tiger”, the entirely of mid-90s trip-hop, even in Belle and Sebastian’s “Don’t Leave the Light on Baby” (those strings!). Although those discovering it for the first time might not be surprised that it dates from 1971, it’s equally plausible to think it could come from 1991, or even 2011. It stands in stark contrast to most of COMIC STRIP, which is emphatically of its time. Call it an obscure masterpiece only the cool kids (or the French) are familiar with if you want, but don’t let that deter you from diving into this compact, captivating song cycle.
Up next: The fine line between person and performer, further blurred.