Review Summary: Charlotte Gainsbourg doesn't quite know what she wants.
Having recently won a best actress Cannes Film Festival award for her work on Lars von Trier’s critically polarizing Antichrist, Charlotte Gainsbourg took time off her ever-improving acting career to set her focus back to a profession much more familiar with the name she bears. Being the daughter of the late, great pop-pioneer Serge Gainsbourg, Charlotte has always had a foot into the music industry, releasing her Serge-helmed debut album at just 15 years old, before focusing on acting until her 2006 follow up, 5:55. With Beck pulling the strings, Gainsbourg returns with another set of breathy, adult pop songs that despite being a step above her last album, ultimately feels bloated and without direction.
Flow may be one of the weakest aspects of IRM but as a set of songs, it produces a few that are certainly worth their salt. The back-to-back combination of Gainsbourg’s best vocal performance on “Time of the Assassins” and the reverb-laden “Trick Pony” are definitely enjoyable, and “La Collectionneuse” is a resonating, eerie piano ballad that, paired with its equally unsettling lyrics, has the ability to stay with you for days. Unfortunately, for every good track, there’s a come down like “Greenwich Mean Time”, which matches absurd lyrics with an unconventional, fractured rhythm, and falls flat on its face in the process. Title track “IRM” uses what sounds like an actual MRI scan as a sample, over jaunty drums and monotonous vocals, but fails to pull any punches and wears itself out by the minute-mark, a frequent weakness of IRM in general.
What IRM really does, above other things, is pose a very important question: who exactly is Charlotte Gainsbourg? Charlotte For Ever was the work of her father, 5:55 took its cues from Jarvis Cocker and Air, and IRM is primarily a Beck-run affair, which subsequently leaves Gainsbourg without any musical identity of her own. She’s presented herself as a vehicle for other artists to channel their musical stylings through but without leaving any clear indiciation of her own individual stamp. To put it simply: her music seems to be steered by whoevers at the wheel at the time, rather than with any clear destination and it makes for albums that feel inconsistent and uninspired. What works for Gainsbourg under these conditions is that she has a good taste for drivers.
2008’s Modern Guilt saw a return to form for alternative golden-boy Beck, whose pots-and-pans pop aesthetic is consistently the highlight of an otherwise drab affair. The staccato strumming and charmingly sloppy guitars are the only things keeping “Looking Glass Blues” from shattering into pieces, and Gainsbourg’s otherwise lifeless performance on “Me and Jane Doe” is kept alive through the intricacies of Beck’s arrangements and backing vocals. Single “Heaven Can Wait” is perhaps the song most blatantly bearing his signature – it’s a fun, piano-pulsing duet that builds on stoically delivered dark imagery (She’s sliding / She’s sliding / Down to the dregs of the world) and is, as a result, far and away the highlight of the album.
Accomplished songs such as the single prove that Gainsbourg certainly has the ability to make the sophisticated pop record she’s been gunning for but it’s a goal that’s sabotaged by her own indecision; naturally then, IRM plays like a record where it’s creator doesn’t know exactly what she wants but has a lot of options she’s considering. “Les Chat Du Café Des Artistes” feels like Carla Bruni meets Serge, “Voyage” sounds far more cinematic than her voice can endure, and “In The End” is light and dreamy, and as IRM sways drunkenly between each whim and influence, it becomes tough for the listener to hold on and at the end of the day, not enough reward for it to be worth the effort.