Serge Gainsbourg wrote music for lots of people. He composed duets for his lovers Jane Birkin and Brigitte Bardot. He wrote lyrics for his friends Jacques Dutronc and Alain Bashung. He wrote and produced entire albums for movie stars like Catherine Deneuve and Isabelle Adjani. He wrote ‘Made In China’ for his last partner, Bambou, a hostage situation set to music. Why, it wouldn’t surprise me if somebody told me he composed an entire album for Birkin’s pet bull terrier, Nana.
And he wrote and recorded an album for his daughter Charlotte in 1986. It came two years after their famous duo scandaleux ‘Lemon Incest’, a chanson set to an old Chopin tune with a disco beat and lyrics like, “The love we will never make together is the most beautiful, the rarest, the most disturbing”, with the pair on a bed in an embrace and papa sans chemise in the video. Charlotte was 13 at the time and the public was suitably shocked, but not enough not to send it to Number Two in the French charts.
There’s nothing quite as provocative on ‘Charlotte For Ever’, Gainsbourg Jr’s first album proper. There was a film of the same name, which did cause plenty of controversy, though we’ll have to save that for another time. On the record, there’s a strange tension between the protagonist and the author. Charlotte goes through the motions up close to the microphone, singing higher than her natural register, like most of the Gainsbourg women, though there’s a detachment and a sense she’d probably rather be back at boarding school hanging out with her chums than taking part in this awkward charade. And yet it’s a dynamic that makes it all the more compelling and, given who’s singing, daddy hasn’t stinted on the material.
He’s also half-inched two of the melodies, as is his wont, from Russia with love. The title track is mesmeric with an atmospheric hum and a top line stolen from a ballet by the Russian composer Aram Khachaturian. As the son of Ukranian immigrants, Gainsbourg also taps into his heritage further borrowing from the Soviet Jewish composer Matvey Blanter on the delectable ‘Zéro Pointé Vers l’Infini’, combining klezmer with a sheeny 80s electro-funk to surprisingly gorgeous effect (google ‘V Lesu Prifrontovom’ to compare the two).
I came across this album while digging through crates in a dusty old comic shop on the Rue Oberkampf in Paris. You can get a reasonably priced version on Discogs, though you’ll suffer paying the postage to get it shipped from France. It’s a fascinating touchstone in the Gainsbourg canon for both father and daughter. Twenty years elapsed between Charlotte’s debut album and her 2006 follow-up, ‘5:55’. Her fourth album, 2017’s ‘Rest’, is the moment where she wrests creative control, making ‘Charlotte For Ever’ an album of acquiescence – an interesting document of that journey and metamorphosis. Curiously her first album is still unavailable on streaming services like Apple and Spotify, though she has been playing ‘Lemon Incest’ and the title track live in recent years, perhaps signifying a reconciliation with a record she participated in under mild emotional duress more than 30 years ago.