It’s a minor tragedy that the work of one of pop’s greatest geniuses, Serge Gainsbourg, is understood by relatively few people outside of France. No one, with the arguable exception of his muse Jane Birkin, has worked harder to bridge that linguistic divide than Mick Harvey. Recorded in 1995 and 1997 respectively, Intoxicated Man and Pink Elephants, Harvey’s two English-language collections of Gainsbourg’s songs, are now bundled together for the first time as a double album, including the previously unreleased “Dr Jeckyll” and “Run From Happiness.”
There have been piecemeal attempts to translate Gainsbourg’s songs in the past, but this is perhaps the most comprehensive, providing a wonderful opportunity for people who didn’t play much attention in French class to finally find out what (to give their English titles) “Ticket Puncher” and “Who Is “In” And Who Is “Out” are all about. (Although, in cases like “69 Erotic Year,” you didn’t exactly need a copy of Petit Larousse to figure it out.)
As you’d expect from someone who’s spent a significant amount of his musical career a few feet away from Nick Cave (as a member of Boys Next Door, the Birthday Party and the Bad Seeds), the Australian Harvey instils a mood of noirishness to Gainsbourg’s oeuvre, his deep, rich croon caressing semi-orchestral pop-rock arrangements that manage to sound both classy and louche at the same time. Just like the real thing.
There’s a touch of garage-rock guitar here, a touch of modern synth there, but no self-conscious attempt to make Gainsbourg “relevant” or “contemporary.” Harvey wisely understands that any attempt to give an edge to Gainsbourg would be redundant — his songs are already overflowing with sex, murder, suicide, crime and insanity. Gainsbourg’s more controversial proclivities aren’t airbrushed away — the notorious “Lemon Incest” and “The Ballad of Melody Nelson” are both included — and that’s in keeping with Harvey’s approach to the project. “I did not want to iron out any of Gainsbourg’s more aberrant angles,” he has explained, “or lose any of his especially perverse and peculiar touches.”
That said, he ducks one or two of the more embarrassing lyrics. An exact reading of “Je T’Aime (Moi Non Plus)” would require him to sing “I go and I come between your kidneys,” but he understandably invokes artistic licence. Similarly, he cleverly ducks Brigitte Bardot’s daft onomatopoeia from “Comic Strip” (“des CLIP! CRAP!, des BANG!, des VLOP!, et des ZIP!, SHEBAM! POW! BLOP! WIZZ!”) by inserting actual B-movie sound effects instead. He does, however, tackle the literal translation of the menacing “Requiem Pour Un Con” (even if the title loses all but its last word).
Hearing these songs in English, it’s easy to appreciate, more than ever, Gainsbourg’s influence on the likes of Jarvis Cocker and Cave himself, who makes a guest appearance, alongside Anita Lane (taking on the Birkin/Bardot roles in the various duets), Warren Ellis and Bertrand Burgalat.
More importantly, Mick Harvey’s superb renditions show the uninitiated that, beyond any doubt, there’s far more to Serge Gainsbourg than a dirty old man who smoked a lot of Gitanes.