Charlotte Gainsbourg, IRM
Some sounds are Beck's, but the show is undoubtedly Gainsbourg's
Charlotte Gainsbourg grew up as the daughter of Serge Gainsbourg, which — as anyone familiar with the louche, lascivious Frenchman might note — would have to rank as a relatively difficult childhood. So maybe that's the source of her many moods, put to good use in her accomplished acting (see her desperate, despondent performance in Lars von Trier's film Antichrist) as well as in her music. But she also had a specific bit of drama to work with as a source for IRM: a small waterskiing accident that led to a big brain hemorrhage and, eventually, a protracted period of going to doctors and weathering a surgery that could have easily left her dead.
IRM is French for the medical testing procedure we know as MRI, and there's a related sense of clinical mystery that haunts the album from beginning to end. Another thing that haunts it: Beck. The devoted L.A. genre-hopper (and professed Serge Gainsbourg fan) worked extensively on IRM, earning credits for producing as well as composing music and co-writing lyrics. Some of the sounds are unmistakably Beck's, from his pronounced backing vocals on "Heaven Can Wait" to the way the drums buckle and kick up dust on the title track.
But the show is Gainsbourg's for sure. And she commands it, employing an impressive vocal range that she puts to almost disorienting use. As a singer, Gainsbourg can lean into an eerie whisper ("In the End") or a serious snarl ("Greenwich Mean Time") and make the meaning of one blur into the other. Throughout, she exhibits a knack for finding open space to inhabit in the midst of arrangements that tend toward a kind of ramshackle miniaturism, like Tom Waits with more of a mind for design. Arty plinks of acoustic guitar and pecks of off-time rhythms do time with gentle melodies and sorrowful strings, and signs of life do time with sighs.