Serge Gainsbourg already had a well-established reputation for outrage when he released Histoire De Melody Nelson in 1971. He sent a teenage France Gall up the charts singing a song about enjoying a sucker, without alerting her to the lyrics’ double meaning. The orgasmic vocal additions of his lover Jane Birkin earned “Je T’aime… Moi Non Plus” a denunciation from the Vatican in 1969. (Both songs still became European hits.) In later years, some of Gainsbourg’s provocations started to feel hollow, like a duet with his adolescent daughter Charlotte called “Lemon Incest.” But Melody Nelson, a concept album newly remastered and reissued in the U.S., found a sweet overlap between Gainsbourg’s urge to shock and his compulsion to make great art.
The shock registers first. Though she was pregnant at the time and years past teendom, Birkin looks uncomfortably young clutching a bear to her bare chest on the cover. The image suits the album’s contents, a song cycle about a Frenchman who carelessly knocks over a 15-year-old English girl while driving his Rolls Royce. Out of that chance encounter spins a brief, passionate affair. Birkin provides the occasional vocal as Melody; Gainsbourg plays the part of the Frenchman. His vocals sound mournful from the outset, even when describing the ecstasy of their forbidden love. As the story progresses and the affair ends through an act as random as the accident that brought them together, he sounds like a man condemned never to experience happiness again. The album begins as a naughty cartoon and ends on a scene of chiaroscuro tragedy.
Gainsbourg clearly brushed up on his Nabokov before cutting the album, and he gives his protagonist some of Humbert Humbert’s lost-soul eloquence. The music, created in collaboration with conductor and arranger Jean-Claude Vannier, does the rest, bathing the tale of doomed lechery in delicate guitar lines, psychedelic asides, lush orchestration, and in the end, a full choir. What could have been a mere provocation takes on tremendous gravity. It’s a true album—its tale of innocence lost and unearned last chances wouldn’t work as well in any other medium, though Gainsbourg and Birkin gave it a try in a series of accompanying short films. Melody Nelson flopped at the time, but has since become a touchstone for everyone from Air to Pulp to Beck, all creators of forward-looking music who’ve never sounded as far ahead of their times as Gainsbourg does here. The album’s remarkable 28 minutes still push boundaries, not just buttons.