Who could have expected Charlotte Gainsbourg to follow up the genital mutilation of Antichrist with a collection of catchy baroque pop songs that — at times — rivals the work of her father, Serge? Well, Beck for one thing. The sea changing musician wrote the music, co-wrote the lyrics, produced, and mixed IRM, Gainsbourg’s third album. His impress is all over the music, sounding sometimes like a more focused Odelay, sometimes like a sweeter Mutations. In spite of its producer’s influences, the eclipsing shadow of her father, and whatever the hell went on in Antichrist, this is Charlotte Gainsbourg’s album. And it’s a powerful album.
“Master’s Hands” starts things off by introducing the sonic aesthetic here: heavy bass, minimal guitar, breathy dissonant vocal melodies and surprisingly complex drumming, at home on a Can album or Fela Kuti. Gainsbourg’s voice coos and purrs, double tracked, drowning in reverb, sounding like she’s whispering in your ear, standing behind you.
The title track is the apogee of Gainsbourg’s collaboration with Beck. Written after a water-skiing accident in 2007 forced Gainsbourg through several MRIs (“imagerie par resonance magnetique”) to diagnose a brain hemorrhage, the album replicates the stress, noise, and contradictory serenity inside the claustrophobic tunnel. Taking its drum beat from the MRI’s electronic resonance, Gainsbourg’s voice has never sounded more forthwright: “Take a picture what’s inside,” she shouts like the Crystals have just taken acid and fired their orchestra. It’s one of the most unassumingly sinister pop songs in years — accidentally frightening, catchy by mistake.
It’s when Gainsbourg slows things down that she resembles her father most. “Le Chat Du Café Des Artistes” and “Vanities”, replicate the disco strings of “Melody” from 1971’s classic Histoire de Melody Nelson, only more sober, alert. “Dandelion” has a throw back blues riff. With Gainsbourg’s whispered vocals, it walks the cusp between derivative rockabilly and pulsating electronica. Throughout IRM, Gainsbourg and Beck explore the tensions and contradictions between accessible pop and freaky science lab experiment. It creates a collection of anxious songs, compulsively listenable in spite of themselves.
The last half of the album goes deeper into the music’s dark exploration of pop music, with a series of surrealistic images and a more chaotic cacophony for instrumentation: The funk guitar of “Trick Pony” is like the White Stripes cooked up in a spoon with Gainsbourg’s vocals drenched in murky reverb claiming, “Trick Pony he don’t know me he don’t know me at all.” On “Greenwich Mean Time”, she sings about living in a crooked house with a crooked cat and mouse. They “stick together like dirty horse flies”, while chaotic circus music plays in the background. “Looking Glass Blues” is a druggy re-telling of Alice in Wonderland, with an organ played backwards and a frightening blues riff turned upside down — like Chuck Berry from the other side of the mirror.
IRM is a swirling mess of sounds and signifiers, tied together in how irresistible it all is. As good as the album is as a whole, the lead single, “Heaven Can Wait”, is too good to be spoken of in the same breath as these other songs. Not since “Life During Wartime” has a pop song been so enigmatic — so friendly because of its creepiness. With a shuffle beat and a soulful horn section, Beck and Gainsbourg harmonize together: “Heaven can wait and hell’s too far to go / Somewhere between what you need and what you know.” A thumping piano contradicts the song’s heartbeat drums while the chorus reaches its peak: “And they’re trying to drive that escalator into the ground.” It’s a head scratcher, but the bizarre sentiment is made about as accessible as “I wanna hold your hand” with the exuberances of the singers’ performance. An astonishing album.