The Spinners

5:55 / IRM (Charlotte Gainsbourg, 2006 / 2010)

In Duo, French, Richard Bolisay on April 20, 2010 at 7:54 am

Imagine if Charlotte Gainsbourg were Filipino, would she really sell records with her type of music? With her whispers and hushed melodies, do you think her music would be as popular as her roles in film? And if we are to make grave comparisons, on the basis of voice alone, how different is she from Gretchen Barretto or Bea Alonzo, who also released albums on their own, which are almost—almost—of the same mood?

Well, that makes all the difference. She’s not Filipino. She’s French. Environment matters; culture dictates; and critics take her seriously. Charlotte, on her part, even if she doesn’t write her songs, has this charm to make all those doubts impertinent. One thing Bea and Gretchen should learn is willingness—willingness to know that they are less capable, willingness to find people to help them out if they are really serious about making music, and willingness to create and not just rehash songs out of convenience. In short, craft. Bea and Gretchen don’t have that. Charlotte does.

It’s easy to get carried away when writing about her. There are a lot of things that come to mind, a lot of relations, a lot of works, a lot of important people around her. Charlotte For Ever is more of Serge taking the hands of his daughter, sometimes leading her on, and in the vagueness of their words there is a suspicion that arises, a sexuality that makes the world cringe like  “Lemon Incest”. But both are sensuous singers, and both are exceptionally good at it. Mitterand did not compare Serge with Baudelaire and Apollinaire out of rhetoric; and Charlotte, with the drastic turn of her career in the last few years, has earned her fame—she has made a name for herself outside the shadow of her parents.

Twenty years after her first album, she released 5:55 with the help of Jarvis Cocker, Air, Neil Hannon, and producer Nigel Godrich. Jarvis writes every track except one, the Air guys and Neil co-write, and the four of them arrange the songs for Charlotte, specially for her. It’s this collaboration that makes it sound more like a mix of Air, Divine Comedy, and Pulp than Charlotte and her voice, for her voice is still the same: soft, whispery, dreamy, and nonchalant. She sings unmindful of what she may sound; and while maintaining a certain distance, she sings the songs made for her like she owns them, which is good. The least a listener would like to hear is too much interference from these established musicians while listening to a Charlotte Gainsbourg album. “The Songs That We Sing” is an easy pick for a single, while “5:55”, “Beauty Mark”, and “Everything I Cannot See” linger enough to be remembered. The others, unfortunately, dissolve in between. Maybe intentional, maybe not. But Charlotte was already making waves then, appearing film after film, from France to a short stint in Hollywood, and the prospect of another album was rather too far off.

But not too far off it turns out, only three years of turning points in her career to come up with something new. Lars von Trier’s Antichrist is one; and her skiing accident, which caused her brain hemorrhage, is another. Both are life-changing, for sure, and torturous; and both experiences reflect on the album, now written and arranged solely by Beck. It’s that authority that makes it cohere, that makes IRM feel like a Beck album as well as a Charlotte album, the thoughts complementing each other, that upon closer listening, their match is simply and utterly spectacular.

The songs that drown and dissolve in 5:55 are nowhere in IRM, where laidback songs not only remain laidback but also remain unique. “In The End”, “Vanities”, “Dandelion”, and “Voyage” nudge personally, like those less popular tracks not released as singles but nonetheless treasured by the listener. Beck’s arrangement is so tailor-fit to Charlotte’s voice that she doesn’t have to make an effort; she sings the same way as before, only Beck provides brilliantly colorful tunes to accompany her, and whimsical lyrics to echo some of her pains. The moment they sing along in “Heaven Can Wait” it confirms that accomplishment. “Me and Jane Doe”, “Master’s Hands”, “IRM”, and “Greenwich Mean Time” crown the album, if that need be said.

Being a doll seems to work at her advantage. Dressed and undressed by different men in each of her albums, she only gets better and better musically without changing. The men keep up with her; she lets them. Her English sounds better than her French, it seems, for she has learned to make it distinct. One only has to look at her album covers, and between 5:55 and IRM, it’s easy to guess which one she is happier and prouder.

– Richard Bolisay

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