Charlotte Gainsbourg: “IRM”
IRM is not Charlotte Gainsbourg’s first recording– in fact, it follows 5:55 by less than four years, not really all that long for a singing/acting multi-tasker– but I’m almost tempted to call it her first singer-songwriter album. I say almost because, of course, Gainsbourg didn’t actually write any of these songs. And yet, the difference between this album and 5:55 is all the difference. The first one, produced by Air, was all about mood and atmosphere, a hazy fever dream about sex and intimacy; this new one, produced by Beck, is all about the songs. Period.
That doesn’t mean it isn’t also, on some level, about the singer, and IRM comes with its own backstory; every critic who has reviewed this record has been sure to point out that its title– the French equivalent of MRI– is a reference to a traumatizing near-dear experience the singer had a few years back. They also tend to evoke the album’s timing, coming, as it does, on the heels of her soul-baring, cathartic performance in Lars von Trier’s Antichrist. In other words, IRM was borne out of an emotionally demanding period of Gainsbourg’s life, and it’s a deeply personal work– as it should be.
Thankfully– and somewhat remarkably– that doesn’t mean it’s a particularly confessional work, nor an indulgent one. If the singer’s personal experiences have cultivated in her a certain passion for musical expression, they’ve also served as a sort of creative catalyst for her partner: Gainsbourg’s story focuses Beck like he hasn’t been focused in a long time, yielding not just his best set of songs since Sea Change, but also a record that juggles his own oddball quirks and obsessions better than almost any album he’s made on his own. It is, in other words, a deeply beneficial coupling: Beck anchors Gainsbourg’s feelings and passions to a set of songs brimming with confidence and craft, while she serves as a sort of muse for him, her story keeping his more ethereal tendencies tied to the ground.
The first two songs reveal the precarious, slightly odd place Gainsbourg is in– or at least was in– when she and Beck started forming these songs. “Master’s Hand” takes on the relationship between the human and the Divine using the familiar analogy of the puppeteer, but the singer’s attitude wavers between defiance and submission. The title cut is a monotone rap from inside the scanner itself, the words boldly and darkly funny, philosophical in a way that’s just the slightest bit hard to swallow. That Gainsbourg didn’t actually write these songs doesn’t matter, as it never feels as though she is merely being used as Beck’s instrument; if anything, it seems to be the other way around.
That said, those same two songs go a long way toward explaining why this is Beck’s finest work in a good while, and it has a lot to do with having a compelling story and a confident singer to center his fascinations around. “Master’s Hand” showcases his sensualist’s delight in odd sounds– clattering junkyard percussion, oddly-tuned guitars– but it’s all in service of folksy, vaguely retro pop. The song ends with some buzzing dissonance that leads into “IRM,” Beck using the studio as an instrument to simulate the scanner’s mechanized hum. These are tricks Beck has employed before, but rarely do his albums work so well simply on the level of the songs, something that the rest of the album shows in spades: The set is nothing if not diverse, courting everything from European-flavored folk to noisey, Tom Waits-styled blues.
But the album’s genius, though rooted in the songs themselves, ultimately rises into something just a bit greater than the sum of its parts; it’s great neither for the singer nor the songs, but for the way the two come together, the way that even when Gainsbourg turns to a slightly sleepy French folk number in “Le Chat du Cafe Des Artistes,” Beck saves it from dullness with his magnificently spooky swell of strings, recalling nothing if not his own haunting Sea Change. It’s also the way that Gainsbourg’s direction keeps Beck from becoming too obtuse or clever with his lyrics, and he anchors Gainsbourg’s sometimes harrowing ideas in humor and humanity. More than anything, though, it’s the way that the album seems to come from a single, shared perspective: Beck doesn’t force his own stamp on these songs, and Gainsbourg delivers them like they’re hers. The end product is a superb work of inspired collaboration, and it’s sure to remain one of the more unexpected and beguiling pop albums released this year.