Charlotte Gainsbourg, “5:55”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #85 – released August 28, 2006)

Track listing: 5:55 / Af607105 / The Operation / Tel Que Tu Es / The Songs That We Sing / Beauty Mark / Little Monsters / Jamais / Night-Time Intermission / Everything I Cannot See / Morning Song / Set Yourself On Fire* / Somewhere Between Waking and Sleeping*

*Bonus tracks included on later editions.

Technically, 5:55 is not Charlotte Gainsbourg’s first appearance on 100 Albums—she’s on the cover of her father Serge’s 1971 LP Histoire de Melody Nelson, albeit in the form of her mother Jane Birkin’s four-month-old baby bump (strategically concealed by a stuffed animal.) Also, 5:55 is not even her debut album, for that was actually 1986’s Charlotte For Ever, featuring the single “Lemon Incest”, which Serge wrote and produced as a duet with her two years before when she was thirteen. We also partially have dad to thank for her subsequent acting career, as he created a feature-length vehicle for the two of them, also called Charlotte For Ever. After his 1991 death, she’d gradually establish herself as a world-class actress with major roles in films like Felix and Lola, My Wife Is An Actress, 21 Grams and The Science of Sleep.

As the offspring of a French singer/songwriter and a British singer/actress, it was inevitable that Gainsbourg would return to making music as an adult; fortunately, the results far exceeded your average actress-wants-to-sing-too kind of effort, even if the methodology wasn’t all that far off from when she worked with her father. Deftly noting that she didn’t possess substantial credentials as a songwriter or a musician, she found superlative artists in each field to assist her. Thus, 5:55 plays like a three-way collaboration between vocalist Gainsbourg, lyricist Jarvis Cocker of the then recently-defunct Britpop group Pulp and French electronica-lounge male duo Air, who wrote and arranged the music.

Pulp fans, no matter how casual, can immediately pinpoint Cocker’s transgressive point of view in 5:55’s lyrics (previously most eloquently expressed in that band’s classic anthem “Common People”.) Likewise, Air fans will easily recognize the gentle, ethereal, piano-and-strings heavy, near-easy-listening vibe as not at all dissimilar from their own albums Moon Safari and Talkie Walkie. Thus, the wild card here is Gainsbourg, whom, two decades removed from Charlotte For Ever, has no great precedent as a singer. Some may argue she’s (still) not a singer, with her thin, reedy voice and tendency to more often breathily speak the lyrics, restricting the actual singing to occasional songs and passages. Still, you can’t deny she has presence—much like her father, who was hardly technically a “great” vocalist, her delivery just oozes personality without seeming artificial or insincere (credit her acting skills.) It’s also fitting that, as she sings/speaks Cocker’s English lyrics, her British accent renders her his distaff equivalent, even if she displays enough flair and finesse to render her more than just a female Cocker clone.

5:55’s title track opener immediately sets a tone the rest of the album sustains. Piano arpeggios lay the foundation for Gainsbourg’s drowsy, near-whispered vocals. “Too late to end it now / too early to start again,” she winsomely sings, followed by a plaintive chorus that’s entirely the song’s title. One minute in, sumptuous strings first appear, occasionally swelling in the instrumental sections (along with a classy acoustic guitar solo) and at the end, as she sighs, “I sacrifice myself again, and again, and again…” repeating those last two words ad infinitum.

“Af607105” retains the same tempo, only to a trip-hop groove laden with electro sound effects. Clipped, spoken verses alternate with a serene, reassuringly sung chorus—the former a stream-of-consciousness collection of words and phrases (“Cigarettes / frequent flyer / stow away / dislocation”), the latter a confirmation as to what the cryptic title refers to (“We wish you all a very happy pleasant flight / this is a journey to the center of the night.”) It’s simultaneously a story-song, a confessional (“My heart is breaking somewhere over Saskatchewan”) and a mood piece.

The rest of 5:55 similarly vacillates between gorgeous, downbeat ballads and more lucid, hookier songs that nonetheless carry a hint of menace. “The Operation”, a scathing look at plastic surgery (“Our love goes under the knife,” she sings in the catchy, caustic chorus) set to a multi-layered mechanical rhythm is followed by “Tel Que Tu Es” (roughly, “Just As You Are”), a floating, circular waltz that exudes sparkly opulence thanks to its triangles and chimes. Interestingly, it’s the sole song here with mostly French lyrics (written by Air instead of Cocker); her decision to sing in English throughout the album might’ve been a way to distance herself from her (in)famous father, who predominantly sang in French.

Similarly, ‘The Songs That We Sing”, which could be an instant standard with its stirring opening fanfare and clarion chorus of, “And these songs that you sing / do they mean anything / To the people you’re singing them to / People like you,” precedes “Beauty Mark”, a deliberately slow, delicate tone poem. Little details, such a Fender Rhodes electric piano or a lone, spaced-out tambourine bubble to the surface as Gainsbourg eerily croons in her higher register, “I’ll keep it for yoo-ouuu,” while vaguely sinister strings threaten to take it all away from her.

On 5:55’s second half, you can sense Gainsbourg’s increasing confidence and a more pronounced tendency to experiment. The glass-eyed “Little Monsters” is the Air-iest song on the record; likewise, the self-deprecating lyrics are among its most Cocker-ish (“Dirty creatures, tiny animals that crawl towards the light / Don’t you ever change”), but the singer more than holds her own—you believe the sentiment is hers and not second-hand, particularly when she concludes, “Deep inside I’m still the same / Just one more little monster / Making out that she knows the rules / A sincere impostor.”

On “Jamais” (i.e.—“Never”), the music almost unapologetically resembles her father’s, opening with a lazy shuffle-beat, a high melodic bassline and luxuriant piano chords that could’ve all been swiped from Histoire de Melody Nelson. But, there’s also so much more going on here: her vocals modulating up a notch with each line in the verses, the almost-mocking harp glissandos on the middle-eight, the monochromatic buzzing synth that just takes over for where the final verse should be, and of course, a plethora of prickly Cocker bon mots (most memorably, “I stick to the script and I go with the plan / And frankly my dear I never gave a damn / Jamais.”)

Both “Night-Time Intermission”, with its brisk, funky drummer groove and “Morning Song”, a spare, shimmering, inconclusive lament add texture but primarily serve as bookends to 5:55’s true centerpiece. “Everything I Cannot See” begins with a carefully strummed acoustic guitar, soon joined by almost rococo piano trills up and down the keyboard. While no Francoise Hardy or even a Joni Mitchell, Gainsbourg’s voice sounds better than ever here, especially at the chorus. Over repeated, cascading piano triplets, she lets loose: “You’re the rain / you’re the stars / you’re so near / you’re so far / you’re my friend / you’re my foe / you’re the miles left to go,” she gutturally but tunefully (not to mention loudly) spits out before concluding, “You are everything I ever wanted / and you are my lover.” It’s such a great chorus it appears four times in just under six minutes, and a fifth or sixth iteration would not be unreasonable.

Like Black Box Recorder’s The Facts of Life (which aurally, at least, it’s not all that far off from), 5:55 did not come out in America until six months after its initial overseas release, but with two bonus tracks, one of which is essential. “Set Yourself On Fire” plays like a slightly juiced-up sequel to “The Operation”, its motorized beat further enhanced by a treated piano lick; it also allows Gainsbourg to rhyme “ashes” with “asses” and spool off such phrases as “he burned his britches, she burned her bra,” in an irresistible Morse code cadence. The other bonus track, “Somewhere Between Waking and Sleeping” is at the very least a more satisfying closer than “Morning Song”, evoking loneliness and ennui without heavy despair, ending most of its verses with the couplet, “Human kindness is overflowing / and I think it’s going to rain today.”

Gainsbourg spent much of the next decade dedicated to her acting career, becoming Lars von Trier’s unlikely muse by starring in his films Antichrist, Melancholia and Nymphomaniac. Her follow-up to 5:55, 2010’s Beck-produced IRM, sported a title inspired by her head injury from a few years prior (it’s the French equivalent of a MRI) and offered a slew of divergent musical paths, all of them interesting enough but none as indelible as its predecessor’s. She would not return with new music until 2017’s Rest, where, for the first time, she wrote all the lyrics (with the exception of “Songbird in a Cage”, composed by one Sir Paul McCartney!) Influenced by her father’s passing and also the more recent death of her sister Kate, it was arguably where she truly came into her own, now quite regularly switching from French to English and back again, turning out confections like the sinister disco epic “Deadly Valentine” that surely would’ve made Serge proud. Time will tell whether Rest replaces 5:55 as her best album (at this writing, it’s still too new); although the latter’s not a debut, it remains an excellent introduction.

Up next: “They put her in the bottom three for singing ‘Tea For Two’.”

“Everything I Cannot See”:

“Jamais”:

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