Album Review: Charlotte Gainsbourg – IRM


French singer/actress Charlotte Gainsbourg titled her latest album, IRM, for the scanner that regularly probed her brain for two years following a cerebral hemorrhage (IRM is the French abbreviation for MRI). Naturally, themes of helplessness, mortality, and survival run through the 13-song set (“It doesn’t take a miracle to raise a heart from the dead,” the songstress croons on “Time of the Assassins”). To take on such somber subject matter, Gainsbourg – daughter of the late legendary French singer Serge Gainsbourg – tapped Beck as her chief collaborator. Not only is Beck an admirer of Gainsbourg Sr., his own Sea Change is a classic of moroseness and melancholy. Not surprisingly, IRM is rife with allusions to Beck’s pop pastiche approach (he co-wrote and produced all but one of the songs on this album) as well as references to the irreverent work of Gainsbourg’s famous father.

In some ways, though, IRM continues the electro-pop sound of Gainsbourg’s second album, 2006’s 5:55. On that effort, she collaborated with French electronic maestros Air and channeled their lush downtempo sound. That coffee shop soundtrack feel is replicated on “Le Chat Du Café des Artistes”, a ballad featuring eerie strings and Gainsbourg’s detached vocal singing appropriately mysterious lyrics in French.

But that’s where the similarities with her Gallic brethren end. On the title track, a skittering, robotic beat and staccato vocals mimic the claustrophobia of the MRI chamber. Meanwhile, the buzz-like sound of an actual MRI machine is heard as Gainsbourg recites such stream-of-consciousness lyrics as “take a picture what’s inside/ghost inside my mind.”

Sea Change-era Beck is channeled on “In the End”, an intimate, acoustic guitar-driven ballad. Similarly, “Vanities” is all sparse arrangement and minimalist vocals. “Time of the Assassins” evokes The Mamas and the Papas.

More indicative of the album’s earthy sound is “Heaven Can Wait”, a ramshackle duet with Beck that begins with stomping percussion and features the singers teaming up for a singalong, his raspy vocal playing off of her Gallic croon. Likewise, “Trick Pony” sounds like French popsters Ivy doing a cover of Beck’s “E-Pro”, as heavy percussion intertwines with an ethereal vocal.

Acoustic guitar and palpitating percussion highlight “Me and Jane Doe”. A ghostly chorus of “aaahs” backs Gainsbourg throughout the song. Found sounds (a cowbell here, an errant kazoo there) punctuate “Greenwich Mean Time”, which boasts another robotic vocal performance from Gainsbourg (“we’re so good, we’re so nice/we stick together like dirty horse flies,” she sings through what sounds like a vocoder). As the album winds down, Gainsbourg sounds jaded but confident on the bluesy, downbeat “Dandelion”.  And the modern avant pop of “Voyage” is very much in the vein of Bjork.

Despite its all-over-the-map sound, IRM hangs together well. Quiet, intimate songs like “In the End” and “Time of the Assassins” sit comfortably alongside more up-tempo rock fare like “Heaven Can Wait” and “Trick Pony”. And throughout the album, dark passages are leavened with wry humor and even hope. It’s an odd balance, but it’s a balance. Having said that, though IRM deals with sobering themes, Gainsbourg and Beck have crafted an album that feels triumphant and lasting.