It seems to be compulsory for reviewers of Charlotte Gainsbourg’s 5.55 to get in a couple of references to her father. This is unfortunate; the fact that the singer is the daughter of the more famous Serge is certainly an angle, but it’s not one that tells us a lot about this album.
So forget Serge; forget Charlotte, even. Consider 5.55 for what it (mostly) is: a set of songs composed and played by Air, with lyrics by Jarvis Cocker and Neil Hannon. Godin and Dunckel, Jarvis Cocker and Neil Hannon, together at last. And a French actress supplying the vocals.
No, it’s not as good as that sounds. But it’s not far short.
Air never were particularly spiky, and over the years they’ve lost a lot of the rough edges and homed in on a lush, lounge-friendly sound; played after “Cherry blossom girl” or “Alone in Kyoto”, Premiers symptomes sounds positively avant-garde. The instrumentation of 5.55 is very lounge; most tracks are dominated by Dunckel’s grand piano, backed by a string section. What redeems it and makes it interesting is a couple of oddly spare, pared-down elements amid the general lushness. One is the composition itself, which centres on simple, repeated patterns of five or six notes on the right hand; not so much Air, more Beta Band. The other – and the really unique feature about the album – is Gainsbourg’s singing voice, which is quiet, light, delicate and frankly rather weak. But the contrast between that voice and that accompaniment – the sweeping strings and the lush, circling piano figures – is arresting; it makes you listen.
And there’s a lot here to listen to. There are three songs which slide back and forth between English and French. The Godin and Dunckel composition “Tel que tu es”, beautifully sung – and beautifully enunciated – by Gainsbourg, had me struggling for a translation: “such as you are”? “how you are”? “just the way you are”? The last verse is in English; the line is “Come as you are”. Very nice. “Jamais” similarly plays with the different expressive qualities of the two languages. Each verse sets up a rejoinder of “Never”, which is delivered in French:
You think you know me, that’s your trouble
Never fall in love with a body double
The word ‘never’ is an undramatic trochee – one stressed syllable and one ‘uh’; ‘jamais’ is much more satisfactory, with two good vowels and a stress on both syllables. Lyrically it’s fine stuff:
I can act like I’m dumb, I can act like I’m clever
You thought that was me? Well I never!
And then there’s the title track, a fragile, bruised meditation on insomnia, which gets a lot of its effect from the sound of that pre-dawn time-check in English and French: ‘five fifty-five’, resigned, hopeless, here I still am; ‘cinq heures cinquante-cinq’, nagging, insistent, isn’t it morning yet?
A cinq heures cinquante-cinq
Nothing will ever change
On the altar of my thought
I sacrifice myself again
And again and again
Two songs are co-written by Neil Hannon, who even plays guitar on one of them; I suppose he must have been passing. “Beauty mark”, I’m sorry to say, stinks. I’ve never really understood – or believed – the classic film reviewer’s dismissal of porn as ‘boring’, but I must admit that this track’s attempt to conjure a certain kind of atmosphere rapidly gets tedious. “This darling bud… this little death…” Yes, yes. Put it away now.
Hannon’s other song, “The songs that we sing”, is one of the album’s highlights.
I saw a photograph:
A woman in a bath of hundred-dollar bills
If the cold doesn’t kill her the money will
I read a magazine
That said, by seventeen your life is at an end
Well, I’m dead and I’m perfectly content
What really lifts this track is the animation in Gainsbourg’s voice; it’s a perfect match with the lyrics.
And these songs that we sing,
Do they mean anything
To the people we’re singing them to?
Tonight they do
The vocal on this track is particularly powerful precisely because of the contrast with the previous track and the next track; it’s certainly not that strong in itself. (Charlotte Gainsbourg sings Ethel Merman will not be appearing any time soon.) It’s a trick that can be pulled perhaps twice in the space of an album. The second time, and the album’s other highlight, is the penultimate track, “Everything I cannot see”. By the standards of this album it’s a big production number. Gainsbourg pushes her voice to the limit: she peaks with a kind of petulant mew, bizarrely affecting in the emotion it doesn’t quite convey. Dunckel’s piano-playing similarly lets rip, sprouting flourishes and curlicues of melody in all directions. Even Jarvis’s lyrics jettison all traces of irony and pitch for heartfelt without worrying about overshooting:
You’re my friend, you’re my foe
You’re the miles left to go
You are everything I ever wanted
And you are my lover
After that, the album closes with “Morning song”, whose lyrics (in English) are by Gainsbourg herself; it’s either about falling in love with a ghost or about spending the night with an ex-lover, it doesn’t really matter which. All that matters at this point in the album is the still, trembling presence of Dunckel’s vibraphone and Gainsbourg’s half-whispering voice, gently promising or warning:
Ah, but to get to the morning, first you have to get through the night…
On the subject of Serge Gainsbourg, I’m pleased to report that What I wrote is now hosting the first in a series of extracts from the recollections of Sir Frederick William Jefferson Bodine, a man equally at home in theatreland, Hollywoodland and the Land of Green Ginger. In part 1 of his showbusiness memoir Remembering Judy Garland, Sir Frederick brings to life the Serge Gainsbourg he knew:
the uke had to go, for a start. The songs got a lot slower, and of course their lyrics had to be translated into French, pretty much in their entirety. Even then, they didn’t really take to him. Eventually I realised the name was giving us problems: we’d changed everything else, but Alfie was still going out with an English name. So out went ‘Khaki’ Gainsborough and in came ‘Serge’ Gainsbourg.