Tuesday, January 19
Last night at the Bell House was Charlotte Gainsbourg’s first live solo show “literally ever,” in the words of her publicist, and the experience was a little like watching a rare Shoebill Stork at the zoo. We stared at her curiously, she sort of looked back, and after about 20 minutes, both spectacle and spectator realized this was all the other was going to do. This is not to say this was a bad way to spend an evening, by any means–monitoring Massachusetts Senate race results, anyone?–but we were not there to be regaled, we were there to investigate.
Charlotte Gainsbourg has her third full-length release coming out next Tuesday, 14 lilting serenades that some dude named Beck wrote for her. Recorded in the wake of a life-changing near-death brain surgery, it’s called IRM, the French abbreviation for MRI, and the sum total of her songwriting contributions were, in her own words, “clues”: words, titles, a book of poetry.
But this record with Beck, though a breezily soothing collection of house-cleaning pop, is not the most interesting thing about Charlotte Gainsbourg. She is far more beguiling for reasons that include, but are not limited to: the fact that this is the daughter of spellbindingly perverse cult hero Serge Gainsbourg; at 13, she shared a bed, in underpants, with him on-camera for a historically infamous father-daughter duet about incest; this year, she won Best Actress at Cannes for a graphic role that included her own genital mutilation; her gamine allure is frequently, mercifully, described as “non-traditional,” which is another way of saying that she’s sexy without being rigidly symmetrical, daintily featured, or impossibly young; she was an asset to Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There; in France, she is a cultural phenomenon who is asked to appear with the Mayor of Paris for the city’s Christmas lighting ceremony, and when our American cultural “secrets” just become national Culture, all that’s left is buy foreign. Hello, Charlotte. You are too complicated for the rest of them.
So yeah, last night’s actual performance. A casual pre-Coachella dress rehearsal of seventeen nearly seamless songs. A totally sweet version Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman” covered originally for the I’m Not There soundtrack. Passive charm, vocal delivery limited to an occasionally indecipherable perma-whisper. One explicit Beck reference: in introducing IRM-opener “Master’s Hands,” our exotic bird explained that the following tune made her think of him, then proceeded to coo it out like Tom Waits’s “Earth Died Screaming” for bi-curious girls. And yes, at various points, as my kind benefactor Twittered, “If there were a sleeping baby onstage the only thing that might wake it would be the clicks of camera phones.” All in all, it might’ve been the least interesting thing about Charlotte Gainsbourg, but when a fellow bellowing in the deep-back stage-left at Dean Wareham, who’d opened the show with Britta, asked, “How can you not love her,” I didn’t have an answer.