Available on: Because Music LP

Here is an album with Charlotte Gainsbourg’s name on the cover, adorned by her face, yet it is Beck who has produced it, wrote the music, co-wrote the lyrics and even mixed it. For a woman that so obviously rails against her father’s legacy, on the surface she seems oddly eager to assume the same ingenue role that Serge Gainsbourg so often bestowed on his female collaborators. But look deeper and it’s harder to define whose album this belongs to.

Not that it really matters. Musically, it bears the sonic hallmarks of Beck yet it’s based on the singer’s experience of multiple MRI scans (the album is named after the French translation, imagerie par résonance magnétique) that she was subjected to after an accident in 2007. This lends more than a whiff of existentialism to her whispy, elegant vocals. “Take my eyes and paint my bones / drill my brain all full of holes / and patch it up before it leaks” sings Gainsbourg on opener ‘Master’s Hands’, bolstered by a scrappy, minimalist rhythmic backdrop. ‘MRI’ sees the use of an intermittent mechanical hum to punctuate Gainsbourg’s description of the process while recreating the clinical ominousness of the MRI machine itself in stark, textured detail.

This interplay between the immediacy of the roughshod instrumentation and the detachment of Gainsbourg’s delivery creates the necessary dissonance and fragility without ever succumbing to maudlin or melodrama. Much is said of Beck’s knack of using sound in interesting ways, but rarely has he exercised such subtlety: ‘Vanities’ sees tremulous violins placed amid droning shafts of sound as Charlotte softly intones “you can have it all/ you can pawn it all/ you can learn to crawl/ where you used to walk”. It’s expansive yet tragically intimate all at once. Likewise, even ‘Le Chat du Cafe Des Artistes’, a cover of a 1970 song by Quebecois singer Jean Pierre Ferland, saved from coffee table Francophilia (and Charlotte’s last album, 5:55 was nothing if not coffee table) by its minor key strings that lash the song’s polite features into something more offbeat, strange, Beck’s own Serge Gainsbourg obsession played out on Sea Change, restrained just enough to veer left of parody.

There are brief moments where Gainsbourg’s presence feels slightly obscured by Beck’s more classical musical palette – the dirty low-slung blues of ‘Trick Pony’ clashes with her well-spoken singing style,  attempts to deliver grammatically iffy Americanisms like “he don’t know me, he don’t know me at all” not sounding at all convincing. Yet, minor gripes aside, IRM is nuanced, intriguing and shot through with a bittersweet vitality. Moreover it’s one of those rare things, a collaboration that draws out great work from both artists concerned.

Louise Brailey



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