Released by: Mercury Records
Released on: October 18, 2011.
Cast: Serge Gainsbourg, Jane Birkin
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Forty years ago Serge Gainsbourg recorded his first concept album, Histoire De Melody Nelson, a bizarre seven song recording that put the singer in the role of a middle aged man who, while out driving in his Rolls Royce one night, runs into a teenage girl riding her bicycle. The girl turns out to be named Melody Nelson and when he gets out of his car to try and help her, he instantly falls in love with her. They begin a torrid affair and embark on a journey of sex and passion only for it to all end, as it began (both in terms of the storyline and in terms of the music, with the vocals being the only real distinguishing element between the opening and closing tracks), in tragedy – at which point Serge’s character begins to basically lose his mind.
While the album was critically acclaimed upon its initial release, it was far from the smash hit that Je T’aime had been for the singer, though it was the money earned from that recording that allowed Gainsbourg the freedom to experiment the way he does on this album. If it’s not the most accessible of his work, it is in many ways the most accomplished. By collaborating with composer Jean-Claude Vannier Gainsbourg was able to almost completely reinvent his sound here. Gone are the jazz sensibilities that had marked much of his early work and the light pop of Comic Strip and in its place are heavy string based orchestrations accented by periodic bursts of funk guitar and thick bass lines.
Gainsbourg’s vocals here are not always sung, but instead delivered just as often in a spoken word style, giving the listener the impression that he’s narrating his own story. Birkin’s vocals, as sweet and feminine and as childlike as you could imagine, compliment his sometimes gruff and always lecherous voice work. While the entire album is, understandably, sung completely in French, much of which is communicated through the album is emotional and primal and as such, you don’t even necessarily need a literal translation to understand what’s happening.
The track listing for the album is as follows:
2.Ballade de Melody Nelson
3.Valse de Melody
The album has gone on to be considered a masterpiece, and quite rightly so. As perverted as it gets and as dirty as it all is, there’s also a completely tragic side to the whole thing, made all the more apparent by Gainsbourg’s introspective narration. One of those rare albums that doesn’t subscribe to any real genre of music, it remains engrossing and entrancing no matter how many times you listen to it. In a rather bizarre move in a career filled with bizarre moves, Gainsbourg would follow this album up with Vu de L’exterior two years later, an album composed almost entirely of acoustic songs about shit.
Histoire De Melody Nelson has been released and released a few times now, with 2009’s Light In The Attic reissue being the one to top. Two years later, and in time for the recording’s fortieth anniversary, the European release from Mercury/Universal does just that, affording the album a truly deluxe package. The first CD in the set contains the original album as we’ve heard it before, presented in crystal clear clarity and sounding great. The second CD in the set, however, contains complete alternate takes of every track on the album (with two takes of the excised track Melody Lit Babar included – a song that never made it to the finished album as it was released). These tracks are quite interesting to hear, and the inclusion of Melody Lit Babar in both instrumental and vocal versions is, quite simply, awesome.
This is, however, a three disc set, the third disc being a region free PAL format DVD. Included on this disc is the entire album remastered in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound. If you’ve got the surround sound system to take advantage of it, this recording sounds amazing. The orchestral pieces are spread around beautifully throughout the channels with the bass emanating from the subwoofer with perfect pitch. The end result is sweeping, epic and quite literally a hypnotic listening experience. Those opposed to tinkering with original sound mixes have got the original recording here to enjoy but this 5.1 mix is just so impressive that it’s hard to imagine anyone who appreciates this record not completely geeking out over it.
The DVD also includes a forty-minute documentary on the history of the album which includes all new exclusive interviews with Gainsbourg’s muse, Jane Birkin as well as her brother, with Vannier and with a few other people associated with the recording. Here we learn how Vannier teamed up with Gainsbourg, who was responsible for what in terms of the compositions, why the album was mixed the way that it was and what Birkin’s relationship with the tempestuous Frenchman was like and how it lead to this record. It’s quite a fascinating look back at how this all came together and an invaluable addition to this set. The documentary also discusses why Melody Lit Babar was not used, where that girlish giggle that pops up on the recording originated from, and the impact that Jacopetti and Prosperi’s Mondo Cane had on the album’s closing track.
In addition to the documentary, there’s also a bonus segment on the disc entitled La Pochette in which Birkin and her brother discuss the cover art on the album, the significance of the monkey that Jane holds in the show and why it’s placed where it is on her body (she was four months pregnant with Charlotte Gainsbroug when the photograph was taken!). Where this DVD falls short is the omission of the videos that were made in 1971 to accompany the album. These are included in their entirety on Universal’s two DVD collection, Serge Gainsbourg – D’autres Nouvelles Des Etoiles, so it’s not like they’re not out there for those who want them, but including them here would have made this set comprehensive. There are lots of clips from them used in the documentary, along with some other cool clips and archival photographs, but they aren’t included in their complete form.
Rounding out the set is a booklet of liner notes, reproduced in both French and English, including essays on how this album came to be, its production and its subsequent impact and influence.
The Final Word:
One of the late Serge Gainsbourg’s shining moments, Histoire De Melody Nelson still holds up as a completely fascinating and original piece of work. It’s a dirty, perverted and wonderful as it’s ever been and the limited edition release’s inclusion of a retrospective documentary and a second CD of alternate takes make this an essential purchase for any fan of Gainsbourg’s work.