Serge Gainsbourg - Histoire De Melody Nelson
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Serge Gainsbourg’s muse, Jane Birkin, appears on the cover of Histoire De Melody Nelson wearing blue jeans and nothing more—if one looks closely at her crotch, they’ll discover she isn’t wearing any underwear. I mention this only because Serge Gainsbourg would’ve wanted me to; the man was a lecher’s lecher. And as any Gainsbourg fan already knows, his lascivious masterwork is a mini rock opera entitled Histoire De Melody Nelson. But this isn’t a rock opera like Tommy or A Night At The Opera; Melody Nelson is rarely bombastic in its presentation. In fact, it doesn’t particularly sound like rock opera (save for the climactic choir on its final track, “Cargo Culte”); however, it is operatic and it does rock.
For the fledgling hipsters out there who aren’t familiar with Serge Gainsbourg, fret not: I was in a similar state of ignorance in the mid-1990s when every hip act from Beck to Stereolab were singing his praises, but I was too engrossed in American hip-hop and English electronica to investigate this French icon of artistically-rendered smut. I did listen to some older music during that period, but it was all funk and fusion from the 1960s and 1970s. Little did I know there was some rather funky French music being made that same era—you guessed it: Gainsbourg! However, it wasn’t until the 21st Century that I discovered the work of Gainsbourg (parenthetically, it also took me that long to discover Bob Dylan; to my credit, I was hip to George Clinton, James Brown and Miles Davis in high-school; I had a tendency to explore black acts before white acts...but as my other reviews suggest, I’ve made up for my reverse discrimination in recent years). Anyway, I was viewing a French film directed by Olivier Assayas, entitled Irma Vep (starring the intoxicating Maggie Cheung of Hong Kong cinema fame) and in addition to loving the film, a song used twice in the movie caught my fancy: “Bonnie and Clyde”. The version heard in Irma Vep was actually performed by the band Luna, but when looking for the song on the Internet, I discovered that “Bonnie and Clyde” was originally written and performed by Serge Gainsbourg in the late 1960s and French sex icon, Brigitte Bardot was Bonnie to Gainsbourg’s Clyde. Becoming quite interested in 1960s pop-culture, this sounded irresistible to me and I immediately purchased a Gainsbourg compilation, Comic Strip, which features ”Bonnie and Clyde” alongside many other kitschy gems. The opening track, however, is definitely not kitsch; “Requiem Pour Un Con” is the highlight of the collection; a seductive, minimalistic piece with Gainsbourg’s raspy, dirty French voice oozing over trancelike drums and bass. The productions on “Requiem” and “Bonnie and Clyde” sound thirty years ahead of their time and the influence they had on contemporary trip-hop is very audible. Intrigued by this side of Gainsbourg, I made the next logical step and bought Histoire De Melody Nelson, which is often cited as his greatest and most influential album.
If ever an album lived up to proverbial hype, Histoire De Melody Nelson does so and does so gloriously. On a mere coolness level, Melody Nelson outcools the Velvet Underground’s White Light/White Heat and Miles Davis’ On The Corner, which makes it pretty damn cool. On a deeper level, the album is a haunting documentation of love and loss, sex and death, obsession and worship.
Like all great musical works, Melody Nelson expresses the above themes not solely through its lyrics, but also through the richly executed and deeply evocative instrumentation. A lone bass starts off the album and throughout the seven-song set, it remains the driving force of the album—both in terms of creating rhythmic tension and melody. The object of Serge’s obsession on the album is a teenaged girl named Melody Nelson and the song titles alone make vivid illustration of this: “Melody”; “Ballade De Melody Nelson”; “Valse De Melody”; “Ah! Melody”; “En Melody”. Hence, it’s fitting that the musical heart of the album—the bass—would be the most melodic instrument. While most white performers at the time were indulging in progressive rock that would quickly become as dated as it was cold, Gainsbourg was embracing the simple but effecting rhythms of funk and fusion; because of this, Melody Nelson sounds rather fresh in a post hip-hop music scene. In fact, a listener may think the album was recorded in the 1990s versus the early 1970s if they didn’t know better. Moreover, the raw and erratic guitar-work throughout the album—like with the VU’s White Light/White Heat—sounds closer to the distorted clunking of punk rock than the soloing pretension of most classic-rock. Even when its ballad time on the album, the guitar-work remains as understated as the best Brit and indi-rock. Perhaps most impressive, is the modern phrasing of the orchestra on Melody Nelson; outdoing even the Beatles in this regard, the strings are sparsely and subversively used; they seldom are heard when expected and do more to accentuate the rhythm and salacious pathos than provide any classical sweep. Evolving from previous songs like “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Requiem Pour Un Con”, Melody Nelson is a further foreshadowing of trip-hop; there’s even a moment on the track, “L’Hotel Particulier” in which an organ is quickly faded in and out, creating a spacey effect akin to a synthesizer. Overall, the 1971 Melody Nelson sounds like what Air was trying to create with their 1998 effort, Moon Safari.
But more than break sonic ground—which it undeniably did—the production of Melody Nelson serves the story it tells...and without it sounding like an ostentatious show as with most rock-opera. Even if you don’t make use of a French translator on the Net, the gist of the narrative is clear enough: Older man meets younger Melody; there is preoccupation, there is eventual sex; and finally, something dramatic occurs. If one does make use of a translator—or better yet: actually knows French—then something more complicated and detailed is obtained. Gainsbourg’s lyrics have been compared to Dylan’s circa 1966-1968; there are similarities insofar that both men possessed a novelist’s grasp of language and mixed frequent allusions with a stream-of-consciousness style, although Gainsbourg was focused more on the dynamics of objectification than the dynamics of relationship like Dylan was. The opening track, “Melody”, makes abstruse references to things like “Silver Ghost” and “Money Venus”; therefore, like Prince during his Lovesexy period, it’s often too foreign and inside to appreciate the full significance. However, there’s enough that is understandable to create a thumbnail sketch of what is transpiring in the lyrics; essentially Gainsbourg is driving around in his “Rolls”—driven by the “Spirit of Ecstasy”—and he nearly crashes into a teenaged girl riding a bicycle, who subsequently introduces herself as “Melody Nelson”. The closing line refers to Melody’s “red-hair” and how it’s her “natural color”. “Ballade De Melody Nelson” has Gainsbourg crooning tenderly about the “small animal” named Melody and his love for her; the ballad also foreshadows the death of the “pleasant small bitch”. “Valse De Melody” (“Waltz of Melody”) is indeed a waltz and the closest Gainsbourg comes to traditional French orchestration on the album; it furthers the bittersweet sentiment with the verse, “The sun is rear and happiness too”. “Ah! Melody” is another ballad about “Melody”, but things get really interesting with “L’Hotel Particulier” (“Special Hotel”) in which during a lubricous musical backdrop, Gainsborug slyly describes the hotel where he and Melody consummate their relationship: “While up there a mirror reflects us,Slowly I intertwine Melody.” What’s transpiring during “En Melody” (“In Melody”) is quite obvious—not only because of its title and chronology, but because the only vocals during this funky jam are provided by a squealing Melody (vocalized by Jane Birkin, the girl on the cover). Finally the suite comes full circle with “Cargo Culte” (“Cargo Worship”), which musically reprises the opening track, “Melody”, but with a portentous choir replacing the string parts. Lyrically, “Cargo Culte” is the most cryptic piece on the album, containing references to “New Guinea”, natives worshiping a “cargo liner”, and Melody’s “dislocated body”. I gather the song is about Gainsbourg’s continued obsession with Melody after her untimely death, but a better translation may be required for a finer interpretation.
The most remarkable thing about Histoire De Melody Nelson is at only 28 minutes it leaves you with the feeling that you experienced a sexual odyssey when it’s finished. Like sex itself does, Melody Nelson seems to bend time; and also like sex, it lures you back again and again and again.
By: Edwin Faust
Published on: 2003-09-01