This week, I’ve been listening to Serge Gainsbourg’s concept album “Histoire de Melody Nelson” from 1971. Gainsbourg released his first album “Du chant à la une !…” in 1958, which was more of a French jazz album. His musical training began as a childhood from his classically-trained pianist father Joseph Ginsburg. I first encountered Gainsbourg’s work by way of Jarvis Cocker of Pulp. I’m a big fan of Pulp and Jarvis Cocker and much of his style draws on inspiration from Gainsbourg and Scott Walker. Gainsbourg’s seductive blend of French pop with rock and jazz along with his narrative vocal style influenced many musicians that came after him. Discovery of Gainsbourg about 7 years ago led to me developing a love of 60s French pop in general.
The album opens with the groovy, dark, smoky bass that becomes a theme of the album. Within the first few seconds, the mood and atmospheric settings are established, and the listener is hooked. The catalyst of the albums story emerges through Serge’s spoke lyrics. I do not know French, so I rely on English translations. This also means that I miss out on much of the wordplay, for which Gainsbourg has a reputation.
The speaker drives his Roll Royce on a dark sinister night; his driving is dangerous. Not so much reckless as careless, his focus is on the female hood ornament rather than the road. About 5 minutes into the 7½ minute track, he loses control of the car and crashes, into the bicycling 15 year old girl Melody Nelson. Over the course of the album, the middle-aged man and the teenage girl will live together and fall in love; then she dies in a plane accident on her way back to visit Sunderland, England.
Though chord progression is not as evident in this track as much rock and pop, the majority of the song follows a I-I-♭VII-IV chord progression, which coincidentally is the same progression as the Rolling Stones “Sympathy for the Devil“. This is mostly provided by monophonic basslines, punctuated by seemingly ad-lib rock lines on overdriven electric guitar. To add tension and drama, strings join in between vocal lines, pulling back to not overpower the narrative. Drums likewise intensify and relax, lending urgency and mood to the track.
Ballade de Melody Nelson
The second track, “Ballade de Melody Nelson,” turns the first track into a long prelude. The titular character Melody and the unnamed speaker (Serge) truly meet each other. Apparently, as he tells the tale, she had never received love from any other. His hug is the first she’s received. Jane Birkin provides the voice of Melody, who says nothing more than her name “Melody Nelson” like a refrain. This story is not her’s but rather his. She’s the innocent wounded object of his affection. The cover photograph gives clear idea how creepy this concept is. Musically, this album is amazingly brilliant, the production is fantastic, the lyrics are very good, and the concept is abhorrent. It’s also loosely auto-biographical, with Birkin being the inspiration for Nelson.
The song flows through a variety of time signatures, starting in 3/4 and then travelling through 5/4 to play in 4/4 and back to 3/4 again. The percussion is minimal, we mostly hear the hi-hat and snare drum, pushed back in the mix, playing a steady rock beat. The forward instruments are the important bass-guitar, a close-miced arpeggio acoustic guitar, and the vocals.This time Gainsbourg’s vocals are mostly sung. Their exchange is soft at times approaching whisper, to indicate the intimacy of the moment.
This minor key song follows a i-VI-i-VI-i-VI-v7-♭vii-IV-i. This is presented mainly by the bass and acoustic guitar arpeggios. Strings pad the sound, providing atmosphere that emphasizes the movement of the progression. The bass and guitar play a motif in unison at the end of each verse that serves as the melodic theme of the track.
As we near the end of the album, “L’Hotel particulier” opens with rock electric guitar strumming chords up front with a pulsating bass underneath emphasizing the rhythm. The guitar patterns continue similar style we’ve heard starting since the first track; This is not redundant so much as repetition for the sake of continuity and theme. The guitar strums panned hard-right, drums panned hard-left. The bass sits in the center. The rock trio provide the main accompaniment, again strings pad the sound occasionally. A dramatic upright piano adds to the sinister and mysterious atmosphere.
Later in the track, a slowly rhythmic tremolo-affected organ adds suspense to the driving unknown. The narrative involves the two going to an erotic hotel, with mysterious hallways intent on sexual persuasion and exploration. He sees himself hug her in the mirror on the ceiling. And he says her name twice, first calling her to him, and the second time he seems almost frightened for her.