Charlotte Gainsbourg – 5:55
Vice Records (North American release 4/24/07)
Rock / Pop
My first thought when listening to this album was that Charlotte Gainsbourg is trying to prove something. There was a subtext throughout the eleven songs of 5:55 that spoke, at least to me, of a breaking away of chains. It was clear I was going to have to do some research. Luckily, not only am I a hip internet writer, I can also use this sucker as a research tool of sorts.
You see, it turns out that Charlotte Gainsbourg is famous. Not famous; she doesn’t possess an omni-present celebrity like Tom Cruise, Paul McCartney or Optimus Prime. But she is a French actress of some note; she’s been a critical darling and box-office success since she was 13 (she’s now 36). Furthermore, her father, Serge Gainsbourg, is famous, at least in his native France. He was a musician, and a controversial one to boot, changing genres album to album, and singing frankly, sometimes outrageously, about sex. On Charlotte’s debut albumâ€”again, when she was 13â€”her father and she shared a duet on a song about incest.
Hey, look, they’re French.
So this is not only an album by the scion of a musical icon, but of a successful actress as well. Luckily for her, for me and for everyone else that has or will listen to 5:55, this is the only time she’ll be compared to J-Lo meets Jakob Dylan.
The tracks on the album aren’t particularly personal, at least not to Charlotte Gainsbourg, having been crafted by team that includes French duo Air (writing the music), British pop star Jarvis Cocker (who handled the lyrics with Neil Hannon and Gainsbourg), engineer David Campbell (father of Beck!) and Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich. Perhaps, needless to say, but with all the talent involved, the album sounds a bit over-produced. But hey, so does â€œStrawberry Fields Foreverâ€. I’m just saying, it’s not always a bad thing.
Onto the album itself. First off, it’s almost all in English, which is a score for me, because my high school French was tres mal. The tracks range from the ethereal title track to the upbeat pop of â€œEverything I Cannot Seeâ€. You almost can’t tell if Gainsbourg can really sing or not, because her voice rarely goes above a whisper, but it works for the kind of music they’re making. It causes you to pay attention to the lyrics more, and in doing so, listen to the music (mostly piano, strings, and percussion) closely as well. The music and lyrics very mesh well on the album as a whole, giving the whole thing a deep, meaningful feel, even if it’s not actually deep and meaningful.
Most the songs on the album deal with relationships in a very esoteric, veryâ€¦ French way (I shudder to use stereotypes, but the whole album makes you think of a guy in a striped shirt and a beret smoking a cigarette in a cafe and lamenting about love). A few songs stand out, or are at least notable for their metaphoric subject matter.
â€œAF607105â€ is one of these songs, using the metaphor for airline travel, and specifically a flight (AF 6070105, natch) that is crashing, to talk about relationships. Somehow this song isn’t straight out depressing, but more thoughtful and studied. It also includes the lines â€œThe cabin is burning / I smile and feel completeâ€, which is just kind of bad-ass.
â€œThe Operationâ€ talks about fixing a relationship, but instead of going to couples therapy, Charlotte is just cutting her lover open and fixing whatever the hell is broken inside of him, using the most modern technology. Sure, it’s weird, but she sticks to the idea and doesn’t break at any point in the song, and she delivers it with a whispering intensity that kind of sells the whole concept.
There are some songs that don’t work as well; â€œBeauty Markâ€ is kind of clichÃ©d, and â€œLittle Monstersâ€ reads like high school poetry. Talented high school poetry, but still overly dramatic with florid imagery.
These flaws bring the album down some, but still it does a good job of tuning listeners in to Charlotte Gainsbourg is (a) not her father, (b) not pursuing a vanity project and (c) takes what she’s doing seriously. It also manages to entertain, and be a good lonely Sunday afternoon album.