It seems kind of fitting that having become a resident of France this year (however unexpectedly), my album of 2017 is from an English-French singer and actress, whose parents were famous for the deliciously pornographic Je T’aime, which rose to the top of the UK charts exactly 96 days after I was born in ’69. It’s Charlotte Gainsbourg’s Rest, an electro-clad treatise on death and grief, hoisted by pristine synths and shrouded in sorrow and disco menace. It’s also some kind of masterpiece.
In art and life, Charlotte Gainsbourg is a poster child for borderless creativity – and the perfect response to bonkers Brexiters. The bilingual singing actress is the daughter of France’s most revered musician, the Parisian provocateur Serge Gainsbourg and London-born English actress and fashion icon Jane Birkin, both of whom helped shape the look and sound of popular culture in the 20th century.
Like her parents, Gainsbourg is a contrarian free spirit, which is amply exemplified on the brand record Rest, which addresses the deaths of her father and, in 2013, her half-sister, the photographer Kate Barry (daughter of celebrated James Bond film composer John Barry), who fell to her death from her fourth-floor Paris apartment, in an apparent drug-fuelled suicide.
Though they had different, equally famous fathers, Gainsbourg and Barry grew up together and were close all their lives. Barry’s death shattered Gainsbourg’s perception of the world around her and she decided to uproot her family and move them to New York. Staying in Paris without Barry didn’t feel possible; it had become a haunted, empty city.
After her father died in 1991, Gainsbourg retreated from the music world and focused on acting. She became a star of French cinema and her popularity grew in the US when she appeared in Michael Gondry’s The Science Of Sleep and a series of tough roles in the so-called Depression Trilogy of controversial Danish director Lars von Trier; Antichrist, Melancholia, and Nymphomaniac. (Recently, Gainsbourg addressed Björk’s claim that the Dane sexually harassed her on the set of Dancer In The Dark, telling The Guardian “maybe Lars is capable of that. But he didn’t do it with me.”)
When Gainsbourg returned to music in 2006, she did it in a big way, enlisting Jarvis Cocker, Nigel Godrich, and Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel of Air to work on her first album in over a decade. 5:55 is an arid and somewhat quirky collection of pop songs sung entirely in English. The next year, Gainsbourg suffered a cerebral haemorrhage, and the near-death experience informed her 2009 album IRM (French for MRI), written and produced by Beck.
She followed the album up in 2010 with Stage Whisper, a ragbag collection of unreleased songs and live tracks.
On her fifth album – and her first in seven years – she has parlayed her contrarian sensibility to devastating effect in an elegiac exploration of grief. In theme and musical direction, it digs in deep but doesn’t wallow.
Instead, Gainsbourg distils her pain via an urbane palette of glacial Air-like disco synths and slick, European club vibes like emollient cream over still sore wounds. The surface is smooth and chill, but it takes someone patient to espy the cracks.
The title track, co-produced by Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, one-half of the Parisian house duo Daft Punk, is undergirded by a seductively somnolent bassline, as if a cool party is taking place next door.
Above the bassline, she coos her part-French, part-English confession as minor keys echo. “We’re floating in the moonlit sky/I’m finding I can fly/So high above with you,” she sings, presumably addressing her late sister.
As heavy as the subject matter can be, Rest is a sleek collection of pop songs that sound good in pretty much any environment, at any time of year. It’s an album I’ve returned to over and over again since it was released last month.
The counter-play between dark, unflinching subject and genre-erasing electronic soundcapes showcases Gainsbourg’s breathy, barely-there vocals in a new light, sounding every bit as coquettish as her mother.
Crucially, the song and album title is a bilingual pun too.
Of course, in English, it means sleep or eternal rest (as in “rest in peace”). In French, it means “stay”. “Restes avec moi,” she sings in the chorus, which translates to “stay with me”.
This double-play is a perfect trope for her barely contained sanity, an allegiance to decorum despite the emotional losses.
French producer SebastiAn, who worked with Frank Ocean on last year’s Blonde album, draws out tension and the gap between public and personal spheres. Kate, a filmic, whispered disco chanson orchestrated by Owen Pallett (The Last Shadow Puppets, Pet Shop Boys), feels unbearably intimate, an unloading from one sister to another.
The more uplifting Songbird In A Cage, written by none other than guest musician Paul McCartney, fits into this narrative too, a life cycle of expirations and resurgences. She half-speaks the lyrics – “Songbird in a cage/Someone that takes pity/Opens up the door” – over rhythms that trip and race.
Freedom and imprisonment, celebrity and surveillance – these are flip sides of each other, which the singer surveys.
Small wonder she would take refuge in make-believe, the power of the imagination.
Sylvia Says is a jaunty romp lathered with slick synths and hip-swinging beats, as Gainsbourg switches between heaven and purgatory: “I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead… I lift my eyes and all is born again.”
Her clear-eyed acceptance of life’s blessings and cruelties is realised in the single Deadly Valentine, a Giorgio Moroder-esque riff on “wedding vows with an offbeat tone”.
“From this day forward, for better, for worse, until death do us part,” she intones.
Everyone dances, none the wiser, slowly wound up in the mortal coil. Bruising, but unbelievably pristine.