Several generations of Francophile hipsters have burned endless cigarettes
while trying to decipher the stream-of-consciousness lyrics of beloved and often
misunderstood oddball French songwriter Serge Gainsbourg.
But for Mick Harvey, of the Bad Seeds, it was a labor of love.
"His lyrics were consistently great throughout," said Harvey of the carnival
cabaret-like songs he had to choose from for his second solo album of
Gainsbourg covers, Pink Elephants (Dec. 9).
"His lyrics were always funny, or complex and almost always fascinating, so it
wasn't hard to choose more songs that I'd personally gotten something from,"
said Harvey, who released his first collection of songs by Gainsbourg,
Intoxicated Man, in 1995. Gainsbourg, who died in 1991 after an
illustrious and controversial career whose highlights included a duet with
actress Bridgette Bardot on the suggestive "Bonnie & Clyde" and a widely
criticized video with his then 14-year-old daughter for the creepy piano ballad
"Lemon Incest," was a cinematic songwriter whose daring was often matched
only by his unwillingness to stick to a single genre.
"The evidence is on the records," said Harvey, calling from New York, while on
an extended holiday from recording with his bandmate Nick Cave. "It's obvious
that he was a remarkable songwriter and that's what got me interested, beyond
the broad range of unusual musical styles that he worked into his strange mix."
Additionally, Harvey said he was inspired to release a second collection of his
translated-into-English versions of Gainsbourg songs, many of which were left
over from the first album's sessions, because "what's behind his lyrical
explorations is still very mysterious to me, and I would guess many people."
Harvey, who freely admits to not being fluent in French, had several assistants
in his quest to translate the works of Gainsbourg, among them, a professor of
linguistics in Brunei, on the northern coast of Borneo, who sent his translations by mail, and a translator friend in
London. "I speak French badly when I'm in Paris," said Harvey, who manages to
croon his way through such Gainsbourg rarities as
HREF="http://www.addict.com/music/Harvey,_Mick/Anthracite.ram">"Anthracite"(RealAudio excerpt), a moody, circus-organ tale of some
indescribable dark dread. ("So come on, try with all your might/ so that the heat
of anthracite/ can come and warm my cold, cold heart/ and cool the aching,
raging part.") Another rare track is "I Love You ... Nor Do I," a sensual duet with
frequent Nick Cave collaborator Anita Lane.
Harvey, who tried to hue closely to Gainsbourg's arrangements on the songs,
cites his lounge-style cover of "Non Affair" as an example of the difficulty of
assessing what Gainsbourg was hinting at in his songs. "That song is rather
peculiar," Harvey said.
With lyrics such as "I'm singing for the transistors/ a strange affair in a story/ of
Asian love's transitory/ my sleeping beauty on the floor," Harvey described his
version as "just as unfathomable as the original. It seems to be a dream thing
about freedom and possibilities. But is it fantasy or a heavily disguised story?"
Harvey wonders. "I still don't know."
Although he said the Gainsbourg collections "aren't a bad way" to get people
familiar with his own work, Harvey said his real desire in releasing this second
volume was to achieve a sense of closure to the project. "There were hundreds
of great songs to choose from," Harvey said. "I could have spent years doing
this, but I mostly approached it as wrapping up stuff from the first one. I only
recorded four or five new tracks for this one, and some favorites of mine that
didn't make it onto the first album."
Aside from gaining personal insight into Gainsbourg's work, Harvey said
another unintentional bonus of re-recording these songs was to further secure
their place in the history of cabaret music. "There are just so many thousands of
songs that slip into oblivion over time."
[Sat., Dec. 6, 1997, 9 a.m. PDT]