As early as 1961, Serge Gainsbourg was one of the most extraordinary artists of the French pop scene, and during the first part of the '60s the crooner produced a series of outrageously brilliant albums with producer/arranger Alain Goraguer. One of his most intoxicating amalgams of jazz and pop styles, L'Etonnant Serge Gainsbourg comes highly recommended to fans of '60s French pop. An utterly essential early document of Serge Gainsbourg while he was still a mildly respectable man – but that's not say there aren't hints of his notorious decadence in this early work.
You're Under Arrest, Gainsbourg's final album, was another collaboration with American Billy Rush in New Jersey. It's difficult to say what Rush was going for here with Gainsbourg. There's the feeling that Rush was taken with both Nile Rodgers' Chic and Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five (especially with the "hugh, hugh, hugh" in the refrains). These are overly slick funk tunes that border on both new wave and rap, and seem to leave the subtle ironies of Gainsbourg's demented lyrics behind – which is too bad because this record is a step up lyrically from Love on the Beat.
1984's Love on the Beat will forever be one of Serge Gainsbourg's most memorable recordings, but not for its musical quality. First and foremost it is the album that gave us the notorious, now infamous, single "Lemon Incest," with its equally scandalous video featuring Gainsbourg on a bed with his scantily clad 12-year-old daughter Charlotte performing the song. It is also the only American recording made by Gainsbourg, recorded in New Jersey with Billy Rush and synth king Larry Fast providing most of the synth programming. Finally, it is notorious for its feminine screaming on the title track, adding a double entendre to the word "beat" in the title.
Even tolerant music fans shudder inwardly at the mention of the concept album, a largely prog rock genre that spawned many of the greatest aesthetic indiscretions of the '70s. L'Homme à Tête de Chou (The Man with the Cabbage Head) is a concept album and shares some of prog's general characteristics, but it's unlike anything emanating from rock's beardy depths. In the spirit of his 1971 masterpiece Histoire de Melody Nelson, Gainsbourg sets this album's brief tale amid a widescreen musical canvas. Whereas Melody Nelson was provocative without being explicit, the gravel-voiced Gallic lecher goes X-rated here – albeit without sacrificing his poetic élan.
Serge Gainsbourg's fascination with the noisier bodily functions has been well-documented, both by his biographers and by his own records. Who else, after all, would commission Sly & Robbie to lay down their earthiest, dubbiest reggae rhythm, then punctuate it with nonstop farting noises ("Evguenie Sokolov" from 1981's Mauvaises Nouvelles des Etoiles album)? Who else would write a novel about a gas-stricken painter who turns his body-burps to his artistic advantage? And whose else could conceive an album dedicated in its near-entirety to…well, the song titles tell that story: "La Poupee Qui Fait" translates as "The Doll That Goes to the Toilet," the title track documents the messier consequences of anal sex, and "Des Vents, des Pets, des Boums" means, simply, "Wind, Farts, Booms."
Recorded in the Bahamas with the same all-star personnel as 1979's Aux Armes et Cætera, Mauvaises Nouvelles des Etoiles is yet another of Gainsbourg's reggae albums, including all the deficiencies inherent in its predecessor as well as the few positives. The breezy melodies of his prime material from the '60s and '70s are unfortunately missing. Though the sound and production is up to Gainsbourg's usual high standards, the songs are much weaker than expected. With little to anchor it except the players and Gainsbourg's seedy vocal delivery, Mauvaises Nouvelles des Etoiles simply floats away. :)
The Comic Strip compilation may be an ideal overview to Gainsbourg's pop oeuvre, but for those sick puppies interested in exploring his entire catalog, this collaboration with then-lover Brigitte Bardot is a good place to start. Many of his most infamous songs ("Bonnie and Clyde," "Comic Strip,") are here, and the lesser-known numbers achieve the same giddy decadence. Yes, the subject matter is transgressive, the performances often silly, but long after the initial shock wears off, Gainsbourg's work continues to surprise and delight.
You don't need to speak a word of French to understand Histoire de Melody Nelson – one needs only to look at the front cover (with its nearly pornographic portrait of a half-naked nymphet clutching a rag doll) or hear the lechery virtually dripping from Serge Gainsbourg's sleazily seductive voice to realize that this is the record your mother always warned you about, a masterpiece of perversion and corruption.