In 1995, at the pinnacle of his success as Nick Cave’s right-hand man, multi-instrumentalist Mick Harvey embarked on the most quixotic of solo projects. He set about translating the songs of the dissolute, recently deceased French songwriter Serge Gainsbourg into English, resulting in two albums in just over two years: Intoxicated Man and Pink Elephants.
For the uninitiated, some context is necessary. To English speakers, Gainsbourg is best known for his 1969 erotic novelty hit Je T’aime … Moi Non Plus, first recorded with Brigitte Bardot and later, successfully, with longtime flame Jane Birkin. But his full catalogue is an embarrassment of riches. At his funeral in 1991, no less than French president François Mitterrand said: “He was our Baudelaire, our Apollinaire.”
He was also a notorious provocateur. To All The Lucky Kids is the funniest not-really anti-drugs song ever: “To all the lucky kids, in substance I’d say this / Don’t go near magic mushrooms / Or acrid marijuana fumes.” Then there’s Lemon Incest, originally recorded with daughter Charlotte: “The love we’ll never make together’s heaven sent, the purest, the most intense” – creepily recorded with “pa-pa-pa” backing vocals.
Both Intoxicated Man and Pink Elephants were cult hits, introducing a generation of English speakers to one of the oddest and finest songwriters of the 20th century. The arrangements ranged from the baroque to lean, muscular rock (singer Anita Lane’s vocal on Harley Davidson left Bardot’s original in the dust). Most crucially, Harvey’s translations preserved all of Gainsbourg’s brilliant rhymes, puns and mordant wit.
The albums were reissued in 2014, with Harvey touring behind them to acclaim. Now, 20 years later, he’s gone back to Gainsbourg’s well for a third time with Delirium Tremens – with a fourth volume due to be released later this year. The obvious question is, why? Harvey has answered that making the original records was simply enormous fun. Thankfully, they’re just as much of a pleasure to listen to.
In any case, Harvey has barely scratched the surface. Gainsbourg’s 34-year, pan-genre catalogue spawned well over 500 songs, and it remains both a revelation and a joy to hear them translated into English. Expanding the project allows Harvey to explore some of the (even) stranger corners of his oeuvre, beginning with The Man With The Cabbage Head – “Half-guy, vegetable from the neck”.
SS C’est Bon, from Gainsbourg’s controversial 1975 album Rock Around The Bunker, is a feedback-drenched march with an unsettlingly chirpy female backing vocal (the album drew on his Jewish upbringing in occupied France). The playful mambo Coffee Colour – possibly familiar, if you watched the second series of Mad Men – is a tribute of sorts to his, ahem, affection for Latina women.
I Envisage is at the opposite extreme, slowly coming to the boil over six minutes on a bass line that simmers under a dread-laden lyric. The sonic landscape here is most akin to the Bad Seeds in full flow, when Harvey, and not the Dirty Three’s Warren Ellis, was conducting proceedings. It’s easy to imagine Cave singing it, too, but the controlled menace of Harvey’s vocal gives it white-knuckled tension.
There are also pop confections such as A Day Like Any Other, sung with evident delight by Xanthe Waite, and the sinuous hard rock of A Violent Poison, That’s What Love Is (“What else is a life of the senses but a move of alternating / Between desire and disgust, from disgust back to desire … A violent poison, that’s what love is / An excess dose of which you should resist.”)
The album is rounded out on a romantic note, a duet between Harvey and his wife Katy Beale on The Decadance. Whether you enjoyed the first two excursions or you’re a Gainsbourg neophyte, Delirium Tremens is every bit as strong and enjoyable as its predecessors.
First published in The Guardian, 24 June 2016