Monday, October 28, 2019

I'd Love to Turn You On #243 - Serge Gainsbourg - Histoire De Melody Nelson (1971)

  Melody Nelson lived fourteen autumns and fifteen summers when she was struck by the front end of a Silver Ghost. The driver, who we can only assume is some extension of the artist in question, was met with confusion and inexplicable lust. Melody survives the incident, but not without being subjected to the narrator’s bizarre, Nabokavian tendencies. Gainsbourg, with the help of partner Jean-Claude Vannier and guest musicians Alan Parker and Dave Richmond among others, spends just under 28 minutes unfolding a musical narrative to which there are many dark, euphoric, and ambiguous sides.
 Histoire De Melody Nelson is a landmark record looked upon by countless musicians as a sonic reference point, and by critics as a benchmark in the field of concept albums. It is perhaps the most influential French rock album ever released and has been covered, and to some extent copied countless times in the 48 years since its release. Beck, who notably paid homage to the album’s title track on his 2003 breakup bummer, Sea Change, called the album “one of the greatest marriages of rock band and orchestra” he’d ever heard. Upon listening, it’s not difficult to understand why. The record opens with a plodding, quiet bassline over jagged guitar riffs that are soon met with the sinister vocal delivery of Serge Gainsbourg relaying in spoken word the story of hitting Melody on her bicycle as he (or the narrator) haplessly drives his Rolls Royce. The darkness of it all becomes quickly euphoric as a swelling orchestra builds over the track’s otherwise brooding atmosphere. Highlighted by production that’s as rich as it is spacious, each musician is given their chance to shine here, but no one instrument distracts from or overshadows its counterparts. The tracks that follow act as vignettes, conveying the narrator’s increasing affinity for the album’s title character.
While the bookend tracks take most of the glory, the sheer musicianship flourishes throughout, without the end product feeling like homework or something that takes itself too seriously. The album’s studio playfulness leads to wonderful, slightly less musical moments. On the track “En Melody,” bursts of maniacal laughter break out over a ferocious drum beat as Gainsbourg relates the story of a plane crash that ultimately takes the life of young Melody. Violinist Jean-Luc Ponty adds a set of strings to the mix as tensions rise toward the fatal crash. The laughter coming from the voice of the titular character, played here by Gainsbourg’s then-wife Jane Birkin, was achieved by Birkin being tickled in the recording booth during the session. Her cackles add a layer of palpable anxiousness as Melody’s short story comes to a bloody, abrupt end.
Below the surface, Melody Nelson is a tremendously complicated exploration of masculinity and its dark, inherent sexuality viewed through the lens of tragedy - though Gainsbourg doesn’t really to seem to offer answers to this complexity here. Melody Nelson, like the strange relationship that unfolds through the album’s story, is another question mark in the life of the story’s recounter. Gainsbourg makes a point to state from the beginning that the story’s central characters are involved in this accident through naivety; in terms of childlike innocence via the story’s victim and by contrast, age and recklessness via its narrator. In the middle somewhere lie love and lust: two timeless themes that have been endlessly tackled by musician after musician. Perhaps Gainsbourg understood this to be heavily trod thematic ground and saw an opportunity to disclose a side of these feelings not often explored, and its provocativeness is nothing more than that. Or maybe the story is somewhat autobiographical and we’re getting a real look into the sinister, paranoid world of the musician in question. Ultimately that truth wouldn’t serve or enhance anyone’s understanding of the album, and its moral ambiguity factors heavily into the atmosphere of it all. The underlying story plays more of a supporting role to Gainsbourg and his band than it does actually try to say something about its subjects and their interactions.
The record’s cinematic nature was, at the time of release, unparalleled by anything else in its genre. While Melody Nelson isn’t exactly a rock opera in comparison to something like The Who’s Tommy, it does a brilliant job of creating a mood to match its subject and creates fertile ground for linear storytelling.

- Blake Britton (Initials B.B.)

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