Who has lived a more curious and compelling life in the arts than Charlotte Gainsbourg?
She was famous the day she was born to English actress Jane Birkin and French musical icon Serge Gainsbourg, who did little to shield their family from the spotlight. She made her big-screen debut as a pre-teen, won a César Award (the French Oscar, if you will) when most kids are learning how to drive, and has since starred in dozens of French films and a handful of Lars Von Trier’s controversial movies.
And that’s just Gainsbourg’s cinematic side. Her musical endeavors have been more sporadic, but over the past 15 years, her full-length album releases have become global events, thanks both to her stardom and her choice of collaborators. Her 2006 album 5:55 was largely written by Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker and the French electro-pop duo Air. She followed it up in 2009 with IRM, an album inspired by Gainsbourg’s 2007 head injury and recorded entirely in Los Angeles with Beck, who wrote (or co-wrote) and produced the whole thing.
Gainsbourg’s albums have consistently sounded beautiful—lush, forward-thinking, well-crafted, pristinely recorded. And they have consistently earned positive reviews. If there is one enduring criticism of her music, it’s that she has restricted access to her own feelings and perspectives by relying on the words of others. Her brilliance lies in delivery and aesthetic and vision. But as humans, we connect with stories.
On her new effort Rest, Gainsbourg opens up and tells her story, spurred by the sadness and anger she felt after the 2013 death of her sister Kate Barry, who fell from the window of her Paris apartment. For the first time, Gainsbourg writes most of her own lyrics, veering back and forth between French and English as she memorializes her sister, celebrates her father (who died in 1991) and, through her kids, laments the ever-quickening passage of time. Along the way, she incorporates children’s playground games (“Ring-a-Ring o’ Roses”) and traditional wedding vows (“Deadly Valentine”), and she gets an assist from none other than Paul McCartney, who wrote and plays on the very McCartney-esque “Songbird in a Cage.”
Sonically, Rest is helmed by the French DJ SebastiAn (aka Sebastian Akchoté) who aims for a cinematic quality on the album’s electro-pop tracks. Sometimes ominously urgent (“Lying With You”) and other times playfully Rococo (“I’m A Lie”), SebastiAn gives Rest a cohesive feel through his artful and consistent use of funky bass lines, sturdy beats, sweeping synths and elegant keyboard melodies. Halfway through, the man takes words written by Sylvia Plath and sets them to a shimmering disco banger! Put him in the DDM Hall of Fame, I say. (That’s Downcast Dance Music, a genre I just made up.)
Here and there on Rest, you’ll find co-production by Danger Mouse and Connan Mockasin, plus strings and horns arranged by Owen Pallett. But predictably, the most striking departure is the album’s title track, a low-key future-lullaby for loved ones lost written and produced by Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo of Daft Punk. The track gleams like a Christmas tree and burbles like it’s underwater. Paired with Gainsbourg’s whispered lyrics about walking on air and moonlit skies, it’s a clear standout here, in part because of its reticence.
Like Charlotte Gainsbourg’s entire musical career, Rest is imperfect, but it’s intriguing enough that you can’t help but pay attention. And now that she’s pouring more of herself into her songs, her work feels weightier, more complex, and more compelling. It will be interesting to see what she does next, and with whom. Here’s hoping she continues down this more personal path.