Review Summary: French music at its finest and most perverse.
You know those albums/ artists that musicians all seem to love? The kind where you find a decades old album cliched not because it's cliched, but because everyone since has copied their sound? Serge Gainsbourg is one of those artists and Histoire de Melody Nelson is one of those albums. Anyone who's listened to Beck's Sea Change will get instant deja-vu as soon as the album begins, as he copied Gainsbourg's style almost exactly for the song "Paper Tiger." Fortunately, although you may often be struck with a sense of familiarity wile listening to this short, but excellent record, it still feels fresh, timeless and provocative even forty years after its release.
Even before this release, he was a bit of a sexual deviant, even for French standards. In the 1966 he composed a song called "Les Sucettes" ("Lollipops") for France Gall. Although 18, she was completely unaware of the double meaning in the lyrics, which, perhaps predictably, had nothing to do with lollipops at all. The song was popular, but would end up derailing Gall's career for years. Then, in 1969 he wrote and recorded the duet "J'taime... moi non plus" ("I love you... me neither") with his then lover Jane Birkin. Although the lyrics are a dialogue between two lovers during copulation and feature imitations of the female orgasm, it was described by Gainsbourg as an "anti ***" song for the desperate and impossible view of physical love it proposed. So it should really no surprise to learn that Histoire de Melody Nelson tells a Lolita-esque tell of sexual perversion between a man and a much younger girl.
But I bet you didn't have to have me tell you that to guess what this album was about. I bet you could tell just by looking at the cover featuring a topless girl holding a teddy bear over her chest. The album tells the story of a man who becomes romantically involved with fourteen year old Melody after hitting her with his car while she was riding her bike. They elope and eventually copulate in the climax of the album "En Melody" (the incredibly subtly titled "In Melody"). For those of you who understand French, the lyrics are actually quite good, but it is not necessary to understand what Gainsbourg is saying to reap great enjoyment from this record.
The music is brilliant, combining prominent bass, dissonant, distorted guitars, muted drums, and orchestration under Gainsbourg's deep almost, spoken croon. Even without understanding what he says, his voice oozes sexuality in all of its good and bad connotations. The female that performs Melody's few parts is likewise excellent, initially sounding sultry and sensuous , but breaking the illusion in "En Melody" where her nasally laugh/moan/scream creates a discomforting image of the sexualization of a teenage girl. You can hear the discomfort and naivety seeping through. The orchestration, however, is the most impressive element of the music. Arranged by Jean-Claude Vannier, it mixes haunting string and choral work with subtle brass that may just be the least bombastic and over the top use of strings in pop music history. With it flows the ominous, subconscious undercurrents of the album. Like Nabokov's Humbert Humbert, the narrator seems to simultaneous revel and despise his actions, and the music portrays that excellently: we hear both the illusory romanticism and the impending doom.
At 28 minutes, the album is unfortunately short, but it feels like a remarkably whole package. Perhaps because really, it's more of a suite than a proper LP. Musical ideas repeat in various alterations, particularly the opening and closing tracks, which are the most similar, and also the most expansive, allowing the orchestration to seep into and consume the conventional rock instrumentation. In consequence of this format, there are really no standout tracks, nothing worthy of the title of a "single," but the entire thing is consistently good, and worth listening to from beginning to end in a single sitting. Indeed, this may be one of the few concept records that feels like it can accomplish the telling of its story in less than an hour. Instead of filler, we are left with an album devoid of fat, trimmed to perfection.
After listening, it's no surprise so many artists have been influenced by it. It contains the lush, baroque arrangements that modern indie musicians find so appealing, but is more mature and interesting than the naive compositions of many American and British bands that augmented their sound with strings in the 60's and 70's. As culturally significant as it may be, don't listen to it for that reason. Listen to it because it's a damn good album, and wonder how he ever got away with writing and releasing something like this.