As a critic, I sometimes find it difficult to separate my particular love for an artist from that artist’s relevance in the general scheme of things. Critics must remember, our intense love of an album does not always mean it is a progressive release that will change the pop cultural climate. Mick Harvey’s two albums of Serge Gainsbourg covers, Intoxicated Man and Pink Elephants are without a doubt two of my favorite albums ever. My first hearing them was as though nearly all of my musical turn-ons, such as orchestral, emotional, dark, and endlessly clever, had been distilled into two albums. Of course more than a little credit goes to Gainsbourg himself, but, to my naive mind, Intoxicated Man and Pink Elephants really pointed out how crucial Harvey was to the sound of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds in their prime. At a time when Cave is arguably more popular than ever — especially in North America — these reissues can be looked upon as the modest documents of a deft interpreter who also had no small part in making the Bad Seeds such a musical force.
But first, Gainsbourg. The chanteur’s reputation as being both the louchest of the louche and an undeniably talented and even touching songwriter (which could also sort of be said for Cave, and definitely said for someone like Jarvis Cocker or the Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon, the latter two having collaborated with Gainsbourg’s daughter, Charlotte) is celebrated to the utmost on Intoxicated Man and Pink Elephants, released in 1995 and 1997, respectively. This insight is valuable, as — in the English-speaking world — during his day, much of Gainsbourg’s talent was overshadowed by controversies and press stunts. His encounter with Whitney Houston on a French television show has been referenced countless times by now. The kitsch factor that surrounds French pop from the ’60s and ’70s also does quite little in selling you on integrity.
Harvey’s interpretations are — wisely — both faithful to Gainsbourg and unique to the translator’s own vision. Gainsbourg’s work is celebrated while not seeming sacred. While a variety of the tracks are almost direct interpretations, a fair amount of drastic reworkings of lesser Gainsbourg cuts are present. “Overseas Telegram” is one of many sterling examples. A song which originally appeared on one of Gainsbourg’s reggae-influenced albums, Mauvaises nouvelles des etoiles, the version appearing on Intoxicated Man is an organ-and-string-drenched ballad delivered breathlessly by frequent Harvey collaborator Anita Lane. In the process, a throwaway song from Gainsbourg’s arguably weakest period is given a rich second life.
Harvey’s reworkings of some of Gainsbourg’s more notorious fare shines a different light as well. “Lemon Incest”, which Gainsbourg originally recorded with daughter Charlotte, is pared down to two minutes, its synthesizers replaced by blasphemous organ. This, as well as Harvey’s sober delivery, substitutes an almost suffocating air of eeriness for the song’s initial air of sleaziness. Another duet — this time with partner Jane Birkin –“Je T’aime…Moi Non Plus” was a #1 hit in the UK, and banned in a number of countries due to its lasciviousness (thanks to lyrics translating as “I go and I come between your loins” and some highly sexual vocalizations from Birkin). An oft-covered tune, Harvey’s version has a lot more authenticity thanks to its casting of former couple Nick Cave and Anita Lane, their own relationship a template for many of Cave’s early and most tortured lyrics. Cave’s somber delivery is a little silly, more than a bit unsettling, and very arousing (if you’re into that sort of thing), but it also hints at the resignation within the song’s theme of the impossibilities tied to physical love. As is the way with Harvey and Cave’s best collaborations, carnality, darkness, lightness and profundity converge to make something already great even better.
These may be Gainsbourg’s songs but, ultimately, this is Harvey’s show, and he does a fine job as frontman throughout, whether muttering filthy phrases over gorgeous strings on “Sex Shop”, competing with B-movie sound effects on “Comic Strip”, being thoroughly elegant on “The Javanaise”, or partnered with Lane on a sprightlier than the original rendition of “Ford Mustang”. Lane’s many appearances toughen up a few songs originally delivered by Birkin and Brigitte Bardot, but she takes her own starring role on the Gainsbourg-penned Bardot song “Harley Davidson”, where all the kitschiness of the ’60s is bled out to reveal a pop-rock song suitable for any decade.
The Intoxicated Man / Pink Elephants double disc reissue contains two previously unreleased covers, “Dr. Jekyll” and “Run From Happiness”. “Run From Happiness” is pleasant enough, but it is a wonder that Harvey’s cacophonous take on “Dr. Jekyll” wasn’t included on one of the original releases. Even without these extras, the albums in their original forms are well worth re-embracing every few years, when current trends feel tired and turning to an old friend is imminent. While a superfluous interpretation or two may keep these from achieving the same “Desert Island Discs” status for others as they have for me, the overall feeling of Intoxicated Man / Pink Elephants is radiant enough to ensure Harvey’s place as one of music’s greatest, and not as merely a side man.