Serge Gainsbourg’s Concept Album, Through the Zeitgeist Darkly

[13 February 2014]

By J.C. Macek III

There is no dearth of documentaries in all media on classic albums. Rarely have documentaries in book form taken the approach that the 33 1/3 series has from the angles that this series has. The imprint has covered such huge selling albums as Guns N’ RosesUse your Illusion, Vols 1 and 2 and such rare (and important) finds as Wire’s Pink Flag. Recently, author Darran Anderson covered the French rock star Serge Gainsbourg’s Histoire de Melody Nelson or 33 1/3 and the book is an eye-opener in surprising ways.

Serge Gainsbourg’s Histoire de Melody Nelson is no mere “making of” biography of a record. While sound is of vital concern in this book about music, Anderson also approaches Gainsbourg’s concept album as a whole, then explores both the sound and background of each of the album’s seven tracks, one chapter at a time, one song title for each chapter title.

Such an approach may have proved to be a daunting task for many writers exploring many subjects, but Anderson is not dealing with an average artist. He is dealing with Serge Gainsbourg. With a bare minimum of research, Gainsbourg can prove to be a fascinating subject. The iconoclastic pop star whose disdain for pop music caused an infusion of irony and cynicism into all of his works, Gainsbourg is a laughing contradiction. And what other entity but a laughing contradiction could pen a sexy song called “Je T’aime… Moi non-plus” (or “I love you… me either”).

Anderson, however, does not simply demonstrate a bare minimum of research. At only 136 pages, his book is as in-depth and academic a read as one can really fathom for an album that clocks in at under a half-hour. Again, Anderson does not merely focus on the sounds of the songs, but the history, zeitgeist and influences of the man who created them.

Each chapter starts with the song and then drills down into Gainsbourg’s life to capture, analyze and grapple with the very DNA of these tunes. This is all while keeping a sharp mind toward the concept that pulls the entire album together, that of an older narrator (voiced by Gainsbourg) who is acting, as the Police would say, “just like that old man in that book by Nabokov” in his lust for a young Lolita-esque nymph named “Melody Nelson” (voiced by Gainsbourg’s real life lover Jane Birkin).

While this book that documents the album is not exactly a biography of Gainsbourg, Anderson is so skilled a documentarian that he includes an (admittedly non-linear) biography of Gainsbourg in the various song-titled chapters.

This is especially true and most hard-hitting in the third chapter, entitled “Valse de Melody”, which covers the album’s second shortest song, but goes deep into the life of the artist. This chapter reaches far back into the life of a young Russian Jew named Lucien Ginsburg, who found himself and his family in France during the Nazi occupation and facing life at the barrel of a gun, while proudly wearing his gold Star of David like a Wild West Sheriff’s badge.

What follows may be vital to the understanding of “Valse de Melody” and the overall concept album on the whole, but is hardly what is expected from a book written about a pop album. To understand the album, one must understand the song. To understand the song, one must understand the songwriter. To understand the songwriter, one must understand his life. To understand his life, one must understand the major impact of his childhood. Thus this hefty chapter delves deeply into the facts about the Nazi Occupation of France, the ghettos, relocation of Jews and the underlying terror of the holocaust. The impact is deep and informative, yet often difficult to read.

Once this middle chapter is understood, the previous two carry a deeper weight. The unconventional looking visual artist, turned musician and actor who was more often dismissed for his looks than for the merits of his work goes from a somewhat sad figure to a deeply tragic character in his own storyline(s). Gainsbourg’s subversive inclusion of dark sarcasm into catchy pop hooks goes from vaguely iconoclastic to gleefully defiant in tone.

World War II and the Holocaust are far from the only influences on Gainsbourg’s life and art, nor does Anderson ignore the rest of the artist’s life. Maintaining the book’s structure of one chapter per song, with all of the facts spider-webbing out from the nucleus of the songs themselves, Anderson delves into Gainsbourg’s relationships, his early work as a visual and musical artist, his family life (above and beyond the impact of the Holocaust) and his time in school.

Anderson’s book is still a document of and companion-piece to the music itself. The author examines Gainsbourg’s musical influences, his collaboration with orchestral composer Jean-Claude Vannier and the very lyrics of Gainsbourg’s songs, all made more clear against the backdrop of the history that Anderson explains and exposes here. While most assuredly Serge Gainsbourg’s Histoire de Melody Nelson is best fit for fans of the album and artist themselves, one can almost hear the music vibrating from the page.

This book is intended to be a biography of an album, but due to Darran Anderson’s thorough research and skilled prose storytelling, Serge Gainsbourg’s Histoire de Melody Nelson morphs into a brilliant (if often dark) illustration of Serge Gainsbourg himself, even more than that of the title character, Melody Nelson. That said, when one knows this much more about the album, the artist and his muse, much like the narrator himself, one will find it almost impossible to avoid falling in love with Melody

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/178754-serge-gainsbourgs-histoire-de-melody-nelson/