In November 2009, singer/songwriter Charlotte Gainsbourg released “IRM,” her third studio album. The Anglo-French woman, for the uninitiated, is also an actress, acclaimed most recently for her role in the Lars von Trier film Antichrist. Her experiences on the set of this emotionally turbulent piece of cinema, she says, provided much inspiration for the music that makes up the album, which, with the help of producer Beck, make for quite an interesting group of songs.
The album starts off with the masterful (pun intended) “Master’s Hands.” Gainsbourg’s breathy and subdued vocal work is complemented by a melody and beat reminiscent of a Four Tet song — clips of acoustic instrument are arranged electronically to give the song a glitchy feel. Her voice seems almost constantly just slightly off key, just a bit flat, but it adds to the character of the track superbly.
The titular track “IRM” is similarly grand, containing samples of an MRI machine humming against a simple, but driving drumbeat. Gainsbourg’s voice is more forceful here, not as airy as in the opening song, and it works to great effect. The song is catchy and the closest thing to a danceable song on this self-described pop album.
“Le Chat Du Café Des Artistes” follows this, and in contrast to the up- and offbeat nature of “IRM,” the song has a dark and gloomy air about it, with deep and resonating piano chords contrasted with the high, plaintive strains of a violin. The fact the song is incomprehensible to me (as I do not speak French) only adds to the gorgeous unease of the tune.
The album’s only single to date is “Heaven Can Wait,” which features Beck performing a duet with Gainsbourg. The tune, like much of the album, is characterized by a bare-bones sort of performance. The song is elegantly uncluttered, being made up by and large of a simple piano line, drumbeat and the singers.
The chorus swells with the addition of brass instrumentation which remains subdued enough to not overwhelm the song, but rather gives the song a bit of an eclectic feel. Catchy and fun, the song makes it clear why it was chosen as a single.
The excellent “Me and Jane Doe” takes this stripped down sound, adds a few beeps and boops, and runs with it. The song has an oddly innocent air about it as Gainsbourg describes an idealized, somewhat fantastical view of what life should be. Lighthearted, but simultaneously somewhat dark, this song is yet another highlight of an album that seems to have so many.
“Trick Pony” and “Greenwich Mean Time” both have a heavier sound than the rest of the album, and both are fueled thumping and pulsing basslines. “Trick Pony” in particular seems to be driven by slick and raw sexiness that is not found elsewhere in the album’s 13 tracks.
All things considered, there is not much bad that can be said of Gainsbourg’s third musical venture. “In the End” is, at worst, a slightly and forgettable track, and the album closer “La Collectionneuse” is a little drawn out, but these are small flaws in an otherwise perfect collection of songs. The mixture of sounds is unique enough between tracks to let each have its own voice, but homogenous enough to give it a characteristic feel — no small feat for the production of an album.