“I don’t think the French’s taste in rock music is that good most of the time,” Mick Harvey says with a laugh. “There’s not a great history of really high-quality rock there. They do a lot of things quite well, but that’s not really one of them.”
One notable exception, the former Nick Cave collaborator says, is the ornate, often cinematic music of singer-songwriter Serge Gainsbourg, most of which transcends rock. In his first two decades as a recording artist, Gainsbourg commanded a varied palette of hazy jazz, lushly arranged French chansons, pulsing yé-yé pop and even some ambitious prog, before trying out reggae and New Wave with diminishing returns in the Eighties. The through line was his witty wordplay, which was always in French – sung in a mumbly jumble – and which often courted controversy. (Witness his immortally horny biggest hit “Je T’Aime … Moi Non Plus.”) The singer-songwriter died in 1991, but he posthumously became an underground-rock legend, influencing Beck, Faith No More’s Mike Patton, Arcade Fire and De La Soul, among countless others.
Long before Gainsbourg’s popularity spread, however, Harvey discovered his music during a stay in Berlin in the late Eighties. “A good friend of mine made me a big compilation tape,” he tells Rolling Stone during a short break before a Helsinki gig with PJ Harvey, whose band he’s playing in. “There was a big awareness about his material on the continent but not a hell of a lot of people knew it outside of there.” In 1995, after years of playing with Cave’s Bad Seeds, the Birthday Party, Crime and the City Solution, and other equally dreary groups, Harvey dedicated his first solo album, Intoxicated Man, solely to Anglicized translations of Gainsbourg’s often upbeat music. He recorded another in 1997, Pink Elephants, and now the Australian musician, age 57, has followed up those two LPs with a third disc of Gainsbourg interpretations, Delirium Tremens.
“When I made my first Gainsbourg albums, his music was quite unknown and obscure,” Harvey says. “So those records were a voyage of discovery. I took it very seriously. Now I’m doing it just because I enjoy it. I don’t feel a cultural responsibility or something.”
The idea of doing more interpretations arose after Harvey played a handful of gigs supporting reissues of the first two albums, leading him to fall back in love with the music. Moreover, he enjoyed the challenge of attempting to translate Gainsbourg’s clever calembours into something English speakers could appreciate.
One of the more difficult songs to get over the net was Gainsbourg’s loungey 1958 jazz number “Ce Mortel Ennui” – “Deadly Tedium” – the video for which premieres above. “That one was always on my radar as a possibility to translate,” Harvey says. “Being a kind of anti-love song, it’s typical of the more perverse aspects of Gainsbourg’s writing and atypical of songs about the breakdown of love and relationships, and it is loaded with dry, black humor.
“With regard to the video, it afforded me the chance to do an entire shoot where I only really needed to look bored,” he continues, “which is fantastic for me as I am no kind of actor of any versatility whatsoever. So that was fun, too, looking bored and irritated all evening in a cocktail bar.”
The Gainsbourg music that Harvey finds most appealing, however, came about a decade after “Ce Mortel Ennui.” “I like the late Sixties through the Brigitte Bardot and early Jane Birkin period,” he says, naming the songwriter’s collaborators on his most decadent chamber pop, the sounds of which reverberate through the Bad Seeds’ mid-Nineties music. “He took on the whole zeitgeist that was going on around him, trying different things like the pre-prog-rock stuff. He used English arrangers and was recording in London. It was then that he moved on to doing the concept albums.
“He’s a real idea thief, you know,” Harvey says laughing. “When people started experimenting, so did he. That’s actually his best phase musically by a long shot, I think. Most of his music I’ve recorded is a huge concentration of material from that time. The music is quite inspired.”
A sizable portion of the material on Delirium Tremens comes from Gainsbourg’s soundtrack for the 1967 TV musical comedy Anna, featuring Anna Karina, which led Harvey to explore the songwriter’s collaborators with other French pop chanteuses, including France Gall and Juliette Gréco. He found so much he liked that he made another album side-by-side with Delirium Tremens, dubbed Intoxicated Women, that will come out later this year and feature Gainsbourg’s songs for women. It will spotlight female singers, who are primarily Australian, and feature duets and Harvey singing tunes that women originally sang.
Harvey, incidentally, hasn’t tackled Gainsbourg’s reggae recordings, and he doesn’t expect to. “I don’t think he was working off much inspiration with the music,” he says. Similarly, he does not like Gainsboug’s late-period New Wave, which was prevalent at the time he discovered the singer. As a result, he’s never felt like he missed out on much by never seeing Gainsbourg in concert before his death.
“He was pretty cheesy at the end,” he says. “I’m not sure he was that spectacular of a live performer. He was wearing denim suits and was really drunk. The idea of that for me is a bit tiresome.” Harvey laughs.