Whenever a well-known actor or actress decides to make a foray into music, not because they’re especially gifted at it, but because they can, it’s almost always universally greeted by groans from tastemakers, hipsters, and on some occasions, the general public. However, when one famous actress in particular manages to have Jean-Benoît Dunckel and Nicolas Godin, otherwise known as French electronic duo Air, Jarvis Cocker, and the Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon co-writing songs for her on an album produced by the great Nigel Godrich, and just so happens to be the daughter of Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin, well, the musical world pricks up its ears with great interest. Oozing continental cool, dry English wit, and assembled by the dude behind all those Radiohead and Beck albums, this is one vanity project the elitists can get behind.
Actually, this isn’t Charlotte Gainsbourg’s first solo outing. Aside from the odd cameo appearance on albums by artists ranging from Badly Drawn Boy to Madonna, the last time we heard from her on record was more than two decades ago on 1986’s enigmatic and provocative Charlotte For Ever, written and produced by her father, an album best known for the resulting highly controversial videos for “Lemon Incest” and the title track. Gainsbourg has refused to talk about her father and her musical past to the media; it’s clear she’s attempting to wipe the slate clean with 5:55, but while Air, Cocker, and Hannon all play an especially vital role on this new album, the musical influence of both her father and mother remains inexorable. Only now, Gainsbourg is fully in control of her art.
A far cry from the fragile teenaged voice on Charlotte For Ever, the 35-year-old Gainsbourg is in sumptuous vocal form on 5:55, giving us an intoxicating combination of her mother’s controlled, English-accented delivery, her father’s breathy, Gitane-scented narration, and her own slight bashfulness, which in itself adds a great deal of charm to the record. Chan Marshall or Feist she isn’t, but her beguiling charisma makes up for any lack of vocal chops. Both Air and Cocker have cited Serge Gainsbourg as a major influence on their own songwriting, but to their credit, they are careful not to let their fandom overwhelm the fact that this is Charlotte’s album. The songwriting is actually extraordinary, tastefully arranged by Godin and Dunckel, reminiscent of the haunting melodies of the duo’s score for The Virgin Suicides, while Cocker is in especially fine form in the lyrics department. No stranger for writing songs for others (Nancy Sinatra and Marianne Faithfull are a couple of examples), he has an uncanny ability to write the perfect words for his singers, yet at the same time toss in classic lines that, upon first listen, lets us know instantly who’s behind them.
The feeling of isolation during air travel is conveyed well on “AF607105”, Air’s languid synth and piano perfectly underscoring Cocker’s clever observations, ranging from detachment (“The flight path / The wingspan / Below the earth rotates”) to his trademark grim humor (“My heart is breaking / Somewhere over Saskatchewan”). Cocker has always toyed with the theme of sexual obsession and emotional possession, and has Gainsbourg performing surgery on her love life on the cold, graphic, yet oddly sultry “The Operation” (“Now I’m inside you / My hands can feel their way / Further Inside than I have ever been… If I pull this off your whole body will be mine”). Gainsbourg’s charm carries the gorgeous, strings-laden “The Songs That We Sing”, making the Cocker/Hannon lyrics her own, especially the line, “I read a magazine / That said by seventeen / Your life was at an end / I’m dead and I’m perfectly content.”
After the mid-album sag of “Beauty Mark” and “Little Monsters”, both of which come a little too close to being too mellow, the album quickly rights itself with the steamy “Jamais”, which bears the strongest resemblance to Serge’s work; dominated by an undulating, almost dub-inspired bassline, around which Godin’s piano chords weave, Charlotte coos Cocker’s enigmatic, film-themed lyrics as strings swirl about during the chorus. “Everything I Cannot See”, meanwhile, serves as the album’s climax, Godin’s cascading piano mirroring the euphoria of Cocker’s lovesick lyrics, sold especially well by Gainsbourg, who eschews her mannered delivery in favor of something more passionate, singing, “You’re my life, you’re my hope / You’re the chain, you’re the rope / You’re my god, you’re my hell.”
Of the two bonus tracks included on the American release, the one keeper is the languid, disco-infused “Set Yourself on Fire”. It clashes with the lyrical and musical themes of the rest of the record, actually sounding like it would be a better fit on Pulp’s This is Hardcore, but for a bonus song this good, we can let such details slide. While 5:55 isn’t quite as clever as Feist and not as soulful as A Girl Called Eddy, it’s still miles ahead of any other CD by all the other media whores out there. With a little help from her famous friends, Gainsbourg has crafted an album deserving of our rapt attention, and worthy of standing alongside the seminal work of both her parents.
// Notes from the Road
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