“Les ailes de la Rolls effleuraient des pylons/ Quand m’etant malgre moi egare/ Nous arrivames ma Rolls et moi dans une zone/ Dangereuse, un endroit isole.”
So begins Serge Gainsbourg’s 1971 masterpiece “Histoire de Melody Nelson,” his ode to the eponymous nymphet. And though he opens with an image of a winding Rolls Royce, it is the zone that follows, dangerous and isolated, that is truly indicative of the sensual mystery surrounding the chanteur. Everything about Serge Gainsbourg epitomized sex — his husky, seductive whisper swirling the language of love into syllables soft and delicate, his body clad in a smart, black suit splayed on a white shag rug, his lyrics always straddling that diaphanous border between sweet fascination and puerile fantasy. But Gainsbourg did not only imagine fictional Melody Nelsons to please the likes of Humbert Humbert, he helped to create one of flesh and blood.
1984’s aptly titled “Lemon Incest” was daughter Charlotte’s first foray into vocal performance, with Papa Gainsbourg guiding his little one as she dipped a candy-pink toe into the steamy waters that had been bubbled and boiled by her father. Even though the song might indicate that the 13-year-old was assuming the identity of her father’s fictional nymphet, in the years since penning the track, Charlotte has moved beyond her father’s territory, making a name for herself within contemporary French cinema. Gainsbourg’s sophomore record, “5:55,” marks a return to her father’s medium as well as an attempt to escape his influences. But listening to the record, the inevitable parallels and heavy Air-y production do little more than label Charlotte Gainsbourg the pin-up girl of Parisian pop.
Considering the French ambient electronica duo cites Serge Gainsbourg as one of its main influences, it is no surprise that nothing about “5:55” sounds characteristically Charlotte. For that matter, what does it even mean to be Charlotte, given that, for both musical inspiration and result, this Lola has relied on either her father or two men who have made themselves in her father’s image?
It is must be difficult to establish oneself as an individual musician, when both one’s music and lyrics are penned by another. Such is the downfall of “5:55,” with words by Jarvis Cocker, among others, and instrumentals recorded and produced by Air’s Jean-Benoit Dunckel and Nicolas Godin. With Dunckel and Godin writing most of the instrumental tracks on the record, crossover between Gainsbourg’s new release and Air’s past feats is inevitable. Title track “5:55” recalls “Cherry Blossom Girl” from “Talkie Walkie” down to the cyclical piano and echoed hums. Also, “AF607105” about a journey beyond our atmosphere evokes the cosmos (cough, cough “Surfing on a Rocket”) through tonal quality and lyrical development: “We hope you had a very happy, pleasant flight/ This is our final destination so goodnight/ Like a stone we are now falling from the sky/ Farewell from AF607105,” Gainsbourg tenderly whispers into space.
That’s not to say that “5:55” is not a good album because, even if the chanteuse is nothing more than the pretty cover girl of this Serge Gainsbourg tribute band, the songs are still sweet and ethereal. The album offers a collection of charming romances — wistful ballads and tempting trances that stride along in well-articulated English, delving every so often into luscious French. On the less-stellar “Tel Que Tu Es,” she croons, “Tu ne sais pas ce que l’on dit de toi/ Tu t’en fous surtout n’y change rien/ Tel que tu es/ No one can tell what you say or do next/ Are you blessed maybe by me sometimes/ Come as you are.”
Serge Gainsbourg was a paragon of personality — he maintained his sexed image through appearance, style, music, even vocal quality. Each of his albums presented the same allure without collapsing into the repetitive and trite. It is a shame, therefore, that his offspring is unable to make an equally deep impression.