Singer-songwriter Serge Gainsbourg was a poet of scandal, always unshaven enough to give French audiences a frisson, often wearing his shirts seriously unbuttoned (an outré gesture in the late ’60s) and incrementally smoking himself to death (which arrived from heart failure on March 2, 1991 — he was 63).
Although his public persona — including marriage to and separation from the beautiful, slightly androgynous English actress Jane Birkin — fascinated the general public, it was Gainsbourg’s songwriting that set him apart. The words to songs such as 1967’s “Je t’aime … Moi, non plus” (“I love you … me neither”) metaphorically and not too subtly evoke the sexual act. In “No Comment,” Gainsbourg poses and answers a series of questions: “Do I fuck? Affirmative.” “Am I hard? Affirmative,” etc. And “Requiem pour un c…” translates literally as “Requiem for a cunt,” though French speakers idiomatically mean “asshole.”
With his deep, languorous voice and uncompromising content, Gainsbourg anticipated disco’s sophisticated sexual focus and France’s opening to the musical world. So it should be no surprise that the French fascination with house music would express itself in this anthology of Gainsbourg hits remixed by 14 young warriors of electronica.
From the opener, “Ballade de Melody Nelson” (hauntingly set in a tender but funky universe of love by Howie B.), to the wistful, S&M-inflected sounds of “Bonnie & Clyde” (as mixed and redecorated by Matthew Herbert), this disc slowly and seductively takes you to the heart of erotic darkness. “Love on the Beat” (as done over almost shockingly by Krikor & W.A.R.R.I.O.), “Sea, Sex & Sun” (in Demon Ritchie’s beat-heavy Mediterranean disco breakout) and “Marabout” (with its trancelike carnival courtesy of Bob Sinclar) are just a few more of the highlights. But really, just about all of the tracks on this party-friendly compilation are killers.
In the end, American unfamiliarity with the Gainsbourg originals is probably a good thing: That way, the purist fan’s natural reticence won’t get in the way of the extra layers of pleasure that I Love Serge spreads on these special songs.
George Tysh is Metro Times arts editor. E-mail him at [email protected].