I’m in a predicament. When I do a review, I usually tend to be familiar with the artist; there’s a back catalogue of random knowledge in my head about the album, the musicians, or just any weird randomness. So here I am and I feel, perhaps appropriately, naked. I know absolutely nothing about Serge Gainsbourg, I’ve only heard the title Histoire de Melody Nelson
in passing before this past week and a half and I know very little French. All these things seem not only like essential knowledge in reviewing this album but also the whole point. There is, however, one thing I’ve picked up in my short time with this short album: knowing about those things isn't a necessity in enjoying this album.
Just near twenty-eight minutes long, Histoire de Melody Nelson
almost isn’t even an album. The seven tracks are a split between orchestral divergences, sultry funk, spoken word folk, french pop and manage to stay very tightly focused. Indeed, the focus is so compacted as one can immediately get the feeling that nothing else was needed. Every moment is precise, every line with a proper place but never so much as to create monotony. The album is very much the anti-thesis to monotony. As I understand from my little knowledge about the background of the album, it is actually a concept album, and as such, must be the shortest concept album in the history of music. The focus is on a character named... Melody Nelson. What her exact condition is to the Serge Gainsbourg’s narrative voice would require some translation as all lyrics are in Gainsbourg’s native French. The nature of their relationship, however, is explicitly clear simply as expressed through the music and general feel of the album. Sexuality. Let’s pick up from there.
- Opens sparsely, a relaxing beat and Gainsbourg’s almost spoken word delivery. His delivery is perhaps the most evocative part of the entire album, giving a feel for the story even when the listener cannot comprehend, changing to find or fit the mood. The work on the album feels less an exhibit of the gracious explosions of sound but more a venue for the voice of Gainsbourg, a voice that can slide from sly to sensual to sleazy in a matter of words. While Gainsbourg sits in the driver's seat lyrically, musically “Melody” shifts gradually from laid-back into full gear, ripe with billowing arrangements and scratchy, serrated guitar riffs. She builds and builds and builds until ecstacy’s tip and then it evens out to introduce Melody Nelson, voiced by Gainsbourg’s wife, Jane Birkin. The crescendo returns and then fades into...
Ballade de Melody Nelson
- 'Ballade' is the first of three tracks reaching or failing to reach two minutes in length. A deep bass groove leads into Gainsbourg, who whispers and croons his way through the two minutes with Birkin interjecting, “Melody Nelson". So very seductively every now and then. Deft finger picking gives way for the ever present orchestral squall. As with “Valse de Melody” and “Ah! Melody”, it’s difficult to really get into these three in and of themselves because of their collective brevity.
Valse de Melody
– “Valse de Melody” means “'Waltz of Melody”. Hooray for babelfish! Anyways, just as the title suggests, this is a waltz of very classical nature. Think 18th century ballroom in the Louis XIV's Versailles. Serge sounds more poet laureate than sexual conquistador here and the style and music elicits a dreamlike air.
– “Ballade”, ” Valse” and “Ah! Melody”, despite their temporal shortcomings do manage to each give a unique feel. 'Ballade' is a perpetual first kiss, “Valse'” could be romancing the lady and 'Ah! Melody,' perhaps, is a shade off from head-over-heels love. Once again, Serge Gainsbourg’s demeanor shifts. 'Ah!' finds him at his most pleasant, sounding optimistic and happy. The worst thing about making these assumptions is that I could be absolutely wrong. Horns burst from behind Gainsbourg, guitar plucks truly suggest glee but perhaps it’s all a clever slight of hand? Kind of makes me want to take up French.
- Here’s where the album begins the climb to the peak. Gainsbourg’s grasp on funk is particularly remarkable given the date of release on Histoire
, not quite as vibrant as James Brown, not as psychedelic as Parliament. Nonetheless his perspective is distinctively French and a unique take on the style, filled with orchestral overtures. “L’Hotel Particulier” slowly pummels the listener with this brand of orchestral animal photographs funk with classic funk rhythms and riffs, then blends into a giant swell of strings and raw arousal. Serge Gainsbourg is now the predator, sounding nearly voyeuristic as he spews... whatever the hell it is he’s really saying.
– “In Melody”. Take the phrase as you will. “En Melody” is superb funk, wild and raucous, the most defining feature being an absolutely fat bass line that thumps around the track with incredible virility. What sounds like an electric violin or viola cuts in around the two minute mark, however, absolutely violating the tough bass line, stealing the spotlight in spectacular fashion. Everything about this song is energetic and jumping suggesting the innuendo of the title. The only vocals are Melody’s squeals and giggles and laugh that will either annoy or endear the hell out of you. Closing out, the energy gives way for a plaintive Gainsbourg accompanied by the sound of swirling wind and the words, “fatale a Melody". That can’t be good.
- Moments of reflection; “Cargo Culte” mirrors the sounds of Melody nearly exactly, the same resounding bass, the same beat, the same slowly building tower of sound. But the difference is bitterness; how could we end up back here after all of that? The riff that tears at the two-forty mark is the sound of heart break. A choir howls at Gainsbourg like dead lovers. It’s the same leveling, the same “Melody, Melody Nelson" as 'Melody”. It’s practically the same battering funk meshed with lush arrangements, only now peppered with a choir to boot. It’s practically the same song but it sounds so different.
I’m just going to out and say this album sounds like sex. It sounds like Serge Gainsbourg is over-sexed or under-sexed, and that he’d rather have been having sex than recording this album. Of course that’s probably just over-speculation. Besides, the end result is this massively complete work that doesn’t even reach a half an hour.