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Album Review: Histoire de Melody Nelson

If Serge Gainsbourg’s decades-long musical career—spanning everything from French pop to blues rock to reggae—could be said to have a single, unifying thread, it was personality. Musical underpinnings changed; his artistic voice (even as his actual vocals deteriorated over the years from habitual cigarette use) remained constant. Equal parts filthy and poetic, strangely forward-thinking and stomach-churningly regressive, Serge Gainsbourg’s lyrical persona was an unmistakable one.

And yet, despite the scores of albums released during his lifetime, a few brilliant, some great, and none less than interesting, one—Histoire de Melody Nelson—seems to tower over all the others in the popular consciousness. Nor is it particularly hard to see why; in fact, for someone looking to get into Serge Gainsbourg’s (admittedly rather intimidating) discography, this is as solid a point of entry as any.

Lyrically, it’s one the tamer Gainsbourg releases. Sure, it centers around the album’s protagonist, a wealthy, middle-aged man, seducing a 15-year old girl, but examining the individual songs, there’s relatively little of the black humor and deadpanned filthiness that characterizes much of his other stuff. The story, for all its squeamishness-inducing premise, is actually played fairly straight—which is, perhaps, the joke. Wordplay abounds, but it’s generally more in the “me l’as dit → Melody” style of pun—clever, understated and above all, classy—rather than, say making “pour quelques pennies” sound like “pour quelques pénis”.

The story, such as it is, goes as follows: Gainsbourg, while riding his Rolls-Royce down the street, knocks over young Melody Nelson as she rides her bike. (“Melody”) She introduces herself, and before long he grows hopelessly infatuated with her. (“Ballade de Melody Nelson”, “Valse de Melody”, and “Ah! Melody” trace this steadily-mounting obsession.) He eventually takes her to a brothel-like mansion with rooms for rent (“L’hôtel particulier), where the pair consummate their love. However, soon after she grows nostalgic for Sunderland, her home, and so returns there by plane (“En Melody”) only to have it crash. In the end, alone once more, our narrator speculates about South American tribes who supposedly pray for plane crashes, and the album ends (“Cargo culte”).

If that sounded short and not particularly impressive to you, it should. The focus of Melody Nelson is pretty clearly not the plot, but rather the lyrics, in which Gainsbourg displays an almost novelistic command of imagery and detail in painting his bizarre little scene, and the instrumentation.

In fact, if I had to pick one defining characteristic that has, over the years, made Histoire de Melody Nelson Gainsbourg’s best-known, best-loved album, it would be that instrumentation. This release marks his only collaboration with famed French composer and arranger Jean-Claude Vannier, and the two of them quite simply work wonders here. The album’s then-unique combination of dense orchestration and funky, rhythm-driven rock still sounds fresh today, and I think that fact ultimately lies in the unique angle from which Gainsbourg and Vannier were approaching it. Plenty of contemporary artists gussied up their straightforward guitar workouts with strings and harpsichords and other similarly “artsy” instrumentation—relatively few were coming at it from the other end, by bolstering baroque chanson numbers with krautrock-inspired drum fills and saw-toothed solos. It’s perhaps because of this that the album’s orchestral elements never seem tacked on, but rather just as integral to the songs as the more straightforward rock stuff.

Now, that’s not to say these two musical sides of Melody Nelson blend in equal measure on every song. With both “L’hôtel particulier” and “En Melody”, the harder-edged elements dominate, while “Valse de Melody” and “Ah! Melody” hew much closer to straight orchestral pop. To hear a true synthesis of the album’s orchestral and rock instincts, you have to look to its opening and closing tracks. (Absent the choral vocals present on “Cargo culte”, they’re essentially identical on a musical level.)

First comes that magnificently seedy, creeping bass, courtesy of Dave Richmond. A fuzzed-out guitar starts to lope rhythmically through the background, and the next thing you know, a clattering drumbeat enters to underpin the proceedings. It’s past the three-minute mark before any strings appear at all, but when they do, it’s as just another instrument in the mix, swooping and swirling around the session musicians (who, it should be noted, included such names as “Big Jim” Sullivan and Alan Parker)—not to mention, of course, Gainsbourg’s intermittent, almost-whispered vocals, first relating the tale of how he first came to meet Melody Nelson, and then the state he’s left in following her death. Both songs are master classes in blending these seemingly disparate musical elements without coming across as either too sappy or too overblown, and they alone would likely have secured Histoire de Melody Nelson a place in the musical canon.

I say “alone”, but those two tracks actually take up almost half the album. That’s another element that tends to stand out to people curious about Gainsbourg’s magnum opus: how short it is. There are only seven tracks, and of those seven, three come in at just two minutes or less. It’s yet another curious dichotomy of Melody Nelson: the arrangements breathe excess, but the album itself is an incredibly lean collection of tracks. The whole thing reads as more of a song cycle than a proper rock opera, and that was likely intentional on Gainsbourg’s part; in 1971, to create an art rock album that clocked in at less than half an hour was practically a statement on its own.

Gainsbourg had never attempted anything of this album’s conceptual or instrumental scope before, and while many of his releases after this were concept albums as well (I would particularly recommend L’Homme à Tête de Chou for the Gainsbourg novice) he never tried to recapture the unique majesty of Melody Nelson. Maybe he figured he’d be incapable of it; maybe he simply felt he had said all he wished to say in that particular style. He would go on to stranger, and more diverse, material, but Histoire de Melody Nelson remains perhaps Serge Gainsbourg’s most perfect album—breathtakingly conceived, impeccably realized, it stands as one of the most unique releases in the modern-day popular music canon.

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