CMU Approved

Approved: Serge Gainsbourg – Histoire De Melody Nelson

By | Published on Wednesday 23 November 2011

Serge Gainsbourg

Largely due to ‘Histoire De Melody Nelson’ having its 40th anniversary reissue last week, I’ve been one of many rediscovering what’s perhaps the most seminal album credited to Serge Gainsbourg, France’s best-loved bad boy chanteur. Released originally in collaboration with composer Jean-Claude Vannier – who has since re-staged the LP with guest Gainsbourgs such as Beck and Jarvis Cocker playing one-night homages – it was designed in part as a tribute to Vladimir Nabokov’s novel ‘Lolita’, with Gainsbourg playing a role akin to its protagonist, Humbert Humbert, while his then-flame Jane Birkin gave voice to its girlish namesake.

The fact that its narrative thread is so swathed in this sort of contrived conceptual sleaze shouldn’t and doesn’t detract from the supple scope of Vannier’s arrangements, which sprawl out, languid and long-limbed, against Gainsbourg’s infatuated murmurings. And well they should, because, as The Quietus’ Jeremy Allen points out in this article, it took a “a 30 piece orchestra and a 70 strong choir”, not to mention lashings of record label cash, to accomplish the multi-tonal surround sounds that make ‘Histoire De Melody Nelson’ so compelling.

As dark and divisive now as it doubtless was when Gainsbourg first dreamt it up, there seems to be a world of praise and critique to read up on when it comes to fully appreciating the album. A starting point, though, would be to invest an indulgent seven and a half minutes listening time in ‘Melody’, which is streaming here. You could also watch Jane Birkin and others discussing the LP in the clip below. It’s taken from the documentary that comes as a companion to deluxe anniversary editions of ‘Histoire’.