Album review: Charlotte Gainsbourg – Rest

John Preston

If you listened to Charlotte Gainsbourg’s third studio album without context and as a non-French speaker, Rest would not sound as though one of its main themes was that of autobiographical grief.

Sonically it is a continuation of the electro and chamber-pop that Gainsbourg has established over the course of her previous albums. This time more tracks are sung either fully or mainly in French, although there are exceptions to this, and the only significant shift musically is an exciting incline towards late-70s disco and funk music.

And Gainsbourg has for the first time moved away from a more muse-based role to that of songwriter and has written about how the deaths of her iconic father and older sister affected her in very different ways.

Charlotte Gainsbourg’s last full length studio album, 2009’s IRM, was written and produced by Beck, and three years before this collaborations with Air and Jarvis Cocker made up the bulk of 5:55.

With Rest, Gainsbourg has worked on her compositions with producer du jour SebastiAn (Frank Ocean and Daft Punk) and together they have forged a template which is unpredictable in respect to both the scale and temperament of song.

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A track such as ‘Sylvia Says’, which quotes from the Sylvia Plath poem ‘Mad Girl’s Love Song’, could be presumed to be depressive and serious but is a low-slung funk track with a euphoric chorus reminiscent of Madonna’s ‘Music’ period.

The album’s closing track, ‘Les oxalis’, is swirling, organic disco with a arms aloft house-piano refrain and has a structure that continues to expand in size and ambition as it makes its way through almost eight wonderfully episodic minutes.

The single ‘Deadly Valentine’ continues with this retro-dance choice with a dramatic and teasingly fluid string part that is somehow both low-key and and elegantly grandiose; a juxtaposition that also applies to Charlotte Gainsbourg herself as a an artist in any of her chosen mediums.

Her voice is not powerful, and on tracks like the minimal hush of the album’s title track is barely raised much above a whisper, but on songs like the Paul McCartney penned ‘Songbird in a Cage’ (the only track here not written at least in part by Gainsbourg herself) Gainsbourg becomes a haughty and precise narrator, charismatic and domineering.

The remainder of the album is somewhat quieter but no less compelling. Kate is all-French dedication to Gainsbourg’s sister, whose death from falling from a window has been presumed to be suicide. With sombre but soothing piano chords, orchestral swoops and occasional drum crashes that lead to an air-filled chorus of wordless ‘ba-ba-dums’, its sense of an eventual, calm release is spiritual and uplifting.

‘Les crocodiles’ is a more gothic-build on this sound and ‘Ring-a-Ring O’Roses’ brings on the macabre synth-pop of the early 80s.

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Rest is many things sonically but there is little here that jars, the production is inventive and organic throughout and suits Charlotte Gainsbourg now signature performance style wonderfully. For an album that explores grief and its inconsistencies, this fantastic record is a joy from start to end.

About John Preston

South London based music obsessive with strong opinions about most things. Doubts Madonna has another good record in her but would love more than anything to be proved wrong.