Serge Gainsbourg – “Histoire de Melody Nelson” (1971)

January 27, 2010 at 1:19 pm (Music, Reviews & Articles)

This review comes from the Tiny Mix Tapes website, not sure of the exact date, but it’s from 2009 (album was lovingly reissued by the great Light in the Attic imprint, who does extremely high quality work) and was written by David Nadelle.
This album was a controversial but intriguing and now classic album from the French provocateur…


Serge Gainsbourg was already the creator of one of the most lascivious pop singles of all time, the infamous “Je T’Aime… Moi Non Plus,” when he released Histoire de Melody Nelson — a short, psychedelic, operatic concept album about a brusque affair between a middle-aged lecher and an underage nymphet with “naturally red hair” (played by Gainsbourg’s then-wife, muse, and collaborator Jane Birkin). Although widely accepted as a classic album, it also has a stigma attached to it: no matter what musical barriers Gainsbourg surpassed, he always seemed, first and foremost, a dirty old man bent on shocking more than creating art. Certainly, Gainsbourg lived every minute of his life by his own envelope-pushing mantra (“For me, provocation is oxygen”), but he was also a romantic of the highest order, compared to Rimbaud while living, to Baudelaire in death.

Clocking in less than 28 minutes, Histoire de Melody Nelson is a groovy, emotive, and intriguing piece that demands more than a cursory listen. Even the recording details have a strong, mysterious allure of their own (until recently, the identities of Gainsbourg’s English session musicians, now known to be Vic Flick, Brian Odgers, Big Jim Sullivan, and Dougie Wright, were uncommon knowledge). Although not terribly difficult to find (my copy is a mid-’90s import reissue) this album should be readily available in all record stores, Wal-Marts, and gas stations throughout the land, even though that would crush its caché considerably. The king of reanimating lost gems, Light in the Attic (with plenty of help from UK treasure trawlers Finders Keepers) is doing its part by reissuing and revamping Gainsbourg’s beloved record which, 38 years after its original release, still holds persuasive power as both a shock-value missive and high conceptualized musical work of art.

In the opener, we meet our characters: the narrator (Serge) and Melody, his object of desire and destiny. More important than the collision between his 1910 Rolls Royce Silver Ghost and her bicycle that highlights, “Melody” is the impact between an inebriated, well-trodden rogue and an innocent but world-ready nymphet; between an overpowering of will and a submission to emotion, and between wanton lust and pure love. The opening scene is heightened by the presence of an indescribable and uncontrollable “spirit of ecstasy,” matched musically by Jean-Claude Vannier’s unwavering cinematic arrangement and the backing band, holding down a hypnotic groove, heavy on scattershot guitar and an elastic bounding bass (ripped off delightfully by Beck on Sea Change’s “Paper Tiger”).

“Ballade de Melody Nelson” is a gorgeous string-powered song which foreshadows the fate of Melody, a girl who had much love to give but whose days were numbered. A mock declaration of bravado is demonstrated for the fatal ending of a “delicious” young girl who our narrator only knew for an instant but who will touch him more than he cares to let on. After this, we experience “Valse de Melody” (a lovely contemplative reminiscence done in sweeping waltz fashion), “Ah! Melody” (detailing the freeing of inhibitions under the influence of burgeoning love), “L’Hotel Particulier” (the irresistible funk of consummation), and the climactic beat instrumental “En Melody” (literally, “in Melody,” complete with Birkin’s orgiastic loss of control) before setting up the tragic final act.

The album ends with the lengthy piece, “Cargo Culte,” which mirrors “Melody” in sound (but adds choral flourishes) and details the devastating end to this unconventional love story. Melody, under the influence of a newly discovered erotic energy, desires to return to her English hometown. Serge, on the other hand, has fallen under her spell and prays for a quasi-religious/spiritual cargo cult to will the plane upon an air disaster in order to bring his Melody back to him. The demise is inevitable; Serge’s heart collapses as she is plucked from the sky and taken from this world, leaving him “having nothing more to lose nor a God in whom to believe.”

Although Gainsbourg had already set himself a life-course of provocation and near-illicit behavior in addition to that of a superstar musician and acting legend in France, the pieces from all camps never fell into such perfect place as they did with Histoire de Melody Nelson. Yet, when released, the record was an unmitigated commercial disaster. As a wordsmith, Gainsbourg is peerless, and Melody is his magnum opus; it may not be his most playful, but it is his most beautiful set of words. Musically, it is a “concept album” that is marvelously understated, never allowing itself 10 minutes, much less one, of instrumental flatulence normally associated with the term. The pomp, when it rears its head, is delectable and reflects the salaciousness going on in the story perfectly. Likewise, Vannier’s contributions are so essential that he deserves co-credit on the front cover (which he was due until it was decided that Gainsbourg would get a solo billing).

Lewd and romantic at the same time, Gainsbourg played upon a much-trodden theme — made most famous by Vladimir Nabokov in Lolita — but makes the story his own by adding a few unique turns (still, it is interesting to note that Gainsbourg had the idea of setting Nabokov’s work to music, even going as far as asking the literary legend’s permission, but an ongoing contractual recording of the novel and Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation derailed his plans). The concept behind the album is just that — a concept or a sketched story. The blanks are there for the listener to fill in: backgrounds, emotions, and aftermaths. Histoire de Melody Nelson is much, much more than a simple lust story, and like any true work of art, it poses more questions than it answers. As the album continues gaining attention for its growing army of celebrity musician admirers, lovers of music owe it to themselves to find this impeccably conceived, progressive musical landmark. Frequently labeled as a lecherous rogue or public provocateur, Gainsbourg is also one of the most important artists of the 20th century, and this masterpiece is the proof.

David Nadelle

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