French-British singer and actress Charlotte Gainsbourg is back with her fourth studio album and her first new album in seven years. She’s the daughter of British actress, singer/songwriter, and model Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg, French singer/songwriter and perhaps the best-known and most influential artist in French popular music. It’s no wonder that the daughter of such an iconic power couple would also go on to greatness as she’s won several prestigious acting awards and she even made an album with her father when she was just 15.
Fast-forward to the present day and Gainsbourg is now 46 years old and has just put out a new record, Rest, her first album that she has largely written herself. Previously, her albums have been mainly written by her father (Charlotte for Ever), Jarvis Cocker (5:55), and Beck (IRM) respectively. Though this album is still her brainchild, it does not fall short in terms of high-profile collaborators. The record contains collaborations with Sir Paul McCartney, Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo (Daft Punk), Connan Mockasin and Owen Pallett (Arcade Fire, The Last Shadow Puppets). The lead track, Ring-A-Ring O’Roses opens with spacey synths, atmospheric strings and delicate, airy French vocals. Like several songs on the record, Gainsbourg sings the verses in French while singing the chorus in English and this particular chorus is one of the strongest on the record, referencing the famous English nursery rhyme. It’s a wonderfully gloomy pop song that juxtaposes the innocence of a children’s nursery rhyme with dark eerie synths and heavy hitting themes of life and death.
This eerie ambiance spills over into the next track, the cymbal-heavy Lying With You, which directly mentions the death of her father in bleak terms “Au coin de ta bouche, une trainee / Tu n’aurais pas aimé”, which translates to “At the corner of your mouth, a streak / You wouldn’t have liked”. The theme of death also lurks on Kate, the electronic pop tribute to her half-sister, Kate Barry. The emotional, piano-centric track builds an immense amount of tension due to the addition of grand, uplifting strings and Gainsbourg’s dainty vocals are some of her best on the record.
One of the album’s singles, Deadly Valentine is adorned with Euro-disco beats, soaring melodies, and wedding vow lyrics, which all liven the largely dismal mood of the record so far. It’s easy to see why this was chosen as a single as it’s the album’s peak of Gainsbourg’s pop brilliance.
While the beginning of the record shines with its beautiful, melancholy electronic pop songs and whispered lead vocals, the middle of the album is where things get a bit bumpy. The music box feels of I’m A Lie is a bit awkward, the minimalistic title track (featuring Daft Punk member Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo) feels cold and sterile despite Gainsbourg’s beautiful vocal delivery, and the energetic, St. Vincent-esque, electro-pop tune Sylvia Says seems out of place.
Then, there’s the wonky Paul McCartney collaboration, Songbird In A Cage, which is characterized by heavy electronic beats and melodies that never quite spark. Dans Vors Airs opens with an acoustic guitar and Gainsbourg’s hazy vocals, spacey synths, and strings return for a track that fails to garner the magic of similar tracks on the first half of the record. Heavy electronic percussion and some uninteresting melodies mark Les Crocodiles, but the incredibly stirring strings and piano come to the song’s rescue.
The album’s bongo-filled final track, Les Oxalis isn’t the world’s strongest album closer as its melodies leave much to be desired, but it’s easy to become wooed by Gainsbourg’s light and airy vocals and the song’s instrumental, piano-driven outro with an intricate synth solo. After five and a half minutes, the song cuts out and a secret track emerges at the six-minute mark to the sound of a woman and child conversing in French. The child then begins singing the alphabet, which turns into a remix with electronic beats and synths backing a loop of the child singing. Oddly, the secret track and remix actually work as it cleverly ties back to the children’s nursery rhyme in the opening track.
Rest is a strong, artistic statement from a singer with such obvious, natural talent. The album’s French and English electronic synth-pop draws immensely raw emotions from her lyrics that detail her childhood, adult life, relationships, and deaths in the family. Gainsbourg’s hazy, sensual lead vocals are the centrepiece of the record, often whispering in a slightly eerie, cinematic tone that would make both her parents proud. The addition of strings, cymbals, and piano add a more human feel to the largely electronic instrumentation of the record, ensuring that the listener rarely loses the intimacy of Gainsbourg’s poetic lyrics and emotional, airy vocals.
There are flashes of brilliance, particularly on the first side of the record, but the overall direction seems a bit misguided and jumbled. Since this is the first album written by herself, the album is an impressive starting point for Gainsbourg and the sky is the limit as all the pieces of a great record are surely present on here somewhere.
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