Album Review: Charlotte Gainsbourg – IRM

by Jason LeRoy on February 26, 2010

Charlotte Gainsbourg is just so effortlessly cool. The daughter of French music legend Serge Gainsbourg and his beautiful British muse, Jane Birkin, Gainsbourg has been singing and acting professionally for over 25 years. Her music has been critically well-received, and she’s worked with such celebrated directors as Franco Zeffirelli, Michel Gondry, Todd Haynes, and perhaps most notoriously, Lars Von Trier for Antichrist, for which she won the Best Actress prize at the Cannes Film Festival. But in an incredibly successful and diverse artistic career, IRM may stand as her greatest triumph.

Produced and co-written by Beck, Ms. Gainsbourg created this album largely as a response to a horrifying near-death experience following a minor water-skiing accident several years ago. When she still experienced headaches several weeks after the skiing incident, she was taken to a hospital and diagnosed with a cerebral hemorrhage. She literally had a hole in her brain, and could have easily died or been paralyzed for life. And even after treatment began, Ms. Gainsbourg (who is married with two children) would continue receiving mixed messages from her doctors regarding her prognosis.

IRM is the French acronym for MRI, or Magnetic Resonance Imaging. Gainsbourg underwent numerous brain scans following her diagnosis, and has spoken about how she listened to the repetitive rhythms and drones of the machine to help her cope with the experience. Those sounds inform this album; the title track is explicitly about this idea, and is a superbly haunting and hypnotic depiction of the relationship between man and machine.

Perhaps it is this substantive experience that elevates this album so far beyond her last LP, 5:55, which was basically an Air album featuring Ms. Gainsbourg cooing breathily over the tracks. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; it’s a seductively enchanting album. But musically, it lacked much vibrancy or variety. IRM, on the other hand, is bursting with style and ideas.

Album opener “Master’s Hands” kicks things off on a playful, glitchy note, before segueing directly into “IRM.” “Le Chat Du Café Des Artistes” is the closest the album comes to the sweeping orchestral sensuality of 5:55, and is as good as anything from that album. On some tracks she dabbles in Eastern sounds (“Greenwich Mean Time,” “Voyage”), while in others she grounds herself in an edgy, sexy rock sound (“Trick Pony,” “Looking Glass Blues”).

On IRM, Gainsbourg and Beck have crafted a near-perfect collection of songs, dabbling in different sonic styles and sensibilities while retaining a cohesive and compelling identity. Hopefully it won’t take further trauma to inspire another artistic achievement of this magnitude. Although, in typically French fashion, Gainsbourg is unsentimental about the lasting effects of her medical nightmare. “It’s true that you look at life in a different way,” she recently told NPR. “But that disappears after a few months.”

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