It would seem Charlotte Gainsbourg already has enough going for her, what with the successful acting career (The Science of Sleep, My Wife is an Actress) and the whole daughter-of-French-national-treasure-Serge-Gainsbourg thing. Yet 20 years after her first album, Charlotte For Ever, (which featured the famous father/daughter duet ‘Lemon Incest’), Gainsbourg has struck out on her own with 5:55.
A hit when it was released last year in Europe, 5:55 would suffer from having too many cooks in the kitchen — if they weren’t all such brilliant cooks. French duo Air helped with music, and Jarvis Cocker and Neil Hannon offer some of their signature wry melodrama. Radiohead uber-producer Nigel Godrich engineered, and Beck’s dad (musician David Campbell) even got involved, composing the exquisite orchestral arrangements.
One almost begins to wonder what exactly Gainsbourg contributed to the writing process. This isn’t a dig at her talents — her voice and deft phrasing is contribution enough — but her co-writers have such distinct styles that they prevent Gainsbourg’s own personality from shining.
With a voice that sounds like a horror-movie victim mid-strangle, Gainsbourg is most engaging on the faster tracks. ‘Everything I Cannot See’ is a rapturous, almost orgasmic ode to an omnipresent lover. ‘Nighttime Intermission’ plays like one of Air’s trademark instrumental tracks, with an overlay of Gainsbourg conducting a self-interview with questions like “What’s your favorite cuss?” and “How do you spell ‘Mississippi’?”
Cocker and Hannon’s words are an asset, and Gainsbourg’s acting experience makes the delivery feel more like cabaret storytelling than singing. (Naturally, the French have a word for this style, popularized by the likes of Edith Piaf and Gainsbourg Sr.—chanson.) The album is full of great sardonic, world-weary lines, like: “I saw a photograph, a woman in a bath of hundred dollar bills. / If the cold doesn’t kill her, money will.”
The slower songs tend to lack this lyrical bite, leaving them a little anemic and treacly. ‘AF 607105’ is a terrible, completely puzzling inclusion about a doomed, possibly intergalactic flight. Sounding like something off a bad French lounge music compilation, the song has Gainsbourg cooing, “The in-flight entertainment’s out of sight.”