INFLAMED: Air provided the lush arrangements, Jarvis Cocker the cutting, wounded sensibility.
Second-generation performers can remind us of their parents in all sorts of unexpected ways. Whenever I see Chiara Mastroianni in a film, it reminds me that the pleasure of going to the movies and seeing her father’s huge, liquid eyes didn’t end with his passing. But no handed-down likeness has ever been more startling than the one Charlotte Gainsbourg revealed in a love scene with Terence Stamp from her husband Yvan Attal’s 2001 comedy Ma femme est une actrice|My Wife Is an Actress. Listening to Gainsbourg simulate the cri d’amour, I blurted out, “She moans exactly like her mother” — mom, of course, being the English-born actress and singer Jane Birkin, who with Charlotte’s dad, the great French singer/songwriter/provocateur Serge Gainsbourg, moaned her way through their 1969 hit “Je t’aime . . . moi non plus.”
You can hear another vocal legacy from Birkin, charming British-accented English, on Gainsbourg’s new, import-only album 5:55 (Because). The disc is a must for devotees of louche continental pop. The music was composed by the French pop duo Air (Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel), and most of the lyrics are by Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker, some in collaboration with Neil Hannon of the Divine Comedy. As one might expect from that group, it’s a sophisticated recording with currents of irony coursing beneath the retro lushness. Even given those collaborators, it probably needs to be said that it’s not just teen idols who record pop music in France but serious actresses. In just the last few years, we’ve had albums from Julie Delpy and Jeanne Balibar and Anna Karina, and the duo Home consist of Chiara Mastroianni and her husband, the premier French popster Benjamin Biolay.
Before this, Gainsbourg’s singing had been limited to a few early numbers recorded with Serge (notably the notorious “Lemon Incest”) and some guest appearances (like “If,” a duet with French pop star Étienne Daho on his terrific 2003 album Réévolution). On 5:55 you no longer hear the high, reedy little girl’s voice she used with her dad. (Gainsbourg is now 35.) Her singing is still breathy, on the demure side of dreamy, even when the vocals are doubletracked.
It also lacks the confidence Birkin shows with similar vocal capabilities. That tentativeness is the charm of 5:55. It’s easy at first to let the relaxed sound of it wash over you, to use it to drift off with at bedtime. But pay attention and you discover one nervous little pop album. The sleepy-time mood of the title track, which opens the disc, turns out to be a worrying insomniac’s lament, a revelation that comes through in both Cocker’s lyrics and the nervous figure Dunckel keeps repeating on the piano. The next track, “AF607105” (the title refers to an Air France flight), casts Gainsbourg as a heartbroken flight attendant, and her distance from the ground becomes a metaphor of her distance from her lover. If you’ve got enough pop ephemera crammed into your noggin (I stand accused), you may remember the same device from a lovely song Merilee (“Angel of the Morning”) Rush recorded in 1968 called “Observation from Flight 285 (In 3/4 Time)” — except, in this Cocker-penned number, the song ends with the attendant finding peace and calmly bidding her passengers adieu as the flight goes down in flames.