The French singer/songwriter Serge Gainsbourg created a myth of a poet, rascal, provocateur, lady's man and maverick, using French pop music as a platform. He redefined the concepts of beauty, cool and sexy. His influence has seeped into a wide variety of contemporary musical genres, from Air and Stereolab to Jarvis Cocker, Luna and Beck. Longtime Nick Cave collaborator (and founding Bad Seeds instrumentalist) Mick Harvey was prompted to release two English-language versions from Gainsbourg's songbook.
Light in the Attic's recent reissue of Gainsbourg's masterpiece, Histoire de Melody Nelson, a concept album originally released in 1971, still stands today as a daring and eccentric mélange of musical styles. Gainsbourg collaborated with Jean-Claude Vannier, who handled all the arrangements and recruited a number of British session musicians, including guitarists Big Jim Sullivan and Vick Flick and drummer Dougie Wright, as well as bringing in a fellow Frenchman, violinist Jean-Luc Ponty (who would later join Zappa's Mothers of Invention).
The sound of Melody Nelson is dense, with the appearance of sounding "light." This is the album's brilliance; it's deceiving. Guitarists Sullivan and Flick's psych-rock accompaniment and Brian Odgers' angular funk bass lines counterpoint Gainsbourg's deadpan delivery, while a full-blown orchestra sets the melancholic mood behind a twisted narrative (older man meets a teenage girl via a car accident, falls in love with her, then the girl tragically dies in a plane crash). He'd already cemented his reputation as a provocateur with his 1969 single, "Je T'aime ... Moi Non Plus," assisted by his then-lover, British actress Jane Birkin Gainsbourg. Birkin also added a few "vocals" on Melody Nelson, while she was pregnant with their child, Charlotte Gainsbourg. She also appeared topless on the album's cover, contributing further to the mystique, myth and controversy.
Gainsbourg's delivery was akin to contemporaries Lou Reed and Leonard Cohen; however, his persona was one that rode the fence between Reed's street-smart, dark urbanity and the melancholic elegance of Cohen.
The minor disappointment of this reissue recording is its briefness, running only 28 minutes long. Why didn't Light in the Attic add a few bonus tracks (such as "Decadanse," also recorded in 1971, or a few extra tracks from the 2006 star-studded Barbican Theatre tribute concert)? But, as it was intended, Histoire de Melody Nelson, a record of bizarre, outlandish and beautiful arrangements, is meant to be listened to as a singular piece. To add a few extra tracks would take away from this experience.
Histoire de Melody Nelson is a milestone -- challenging conceptually, as well as musically. And with this superb Light in the Attic reissue, accompanied with detailed liner notes and photographs, it allows a larger public to finally catch up to a work that clearly was far ahead of its time.