Serge Gainsbourg’s Concept Album, Through the Zeitgeist Darkly

The question of the narrator of Histoire de Melody Nelson and its title nymph can only be answered by exploring the questions surrounding Serge Gainsbourg himself.

Serge Gainsbourg's Histoire de Melody Nelson (33 1/3)

Publisher: Bloomsbury Academic
Author: Darran Anderson
Price: $11.00
Format: Paperback
US Publication: 2013-10-24
Length: 136 Pages
UK Publication: 2013-12-19

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


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.