Mick Harvey & Serge Gainsbourg: The Legacy of Opposing Genius
When Mick Harvey was fifteen, all rosy-cheeked and virginal as he graced the second row of his high school boy's choir, I wonder if he had any inkling of the raw impact that he would have on not only the music world, but the entire world as an artistic entity.
The son of a country vicar has come a long way from the awkward, pimply gangle of Melbourne's inner-southern suburbs, now having graced the world's stages with such luminous visionaries as David Bowie, Iggy Pop, PJ Harvey, and of course, the mercurial, or in his own joking words, the blister on my arse, Nick Cave. Now, in the philosophical peak of his life, after forty glorious years in the music biz, where perhaps the gracefully ageing genius should be taking it slow and low, he has taken on a passion project of epic, and potentially limitless, proportions.
*Watch as a pubescent Mick Harvey, still earning his chops, frolics through a Nancy Sinatra staple with Nick Cave and Rowland S. Howard in the Boys Next door.
A fellow music writer once proclaimed to me over a pint of red ale in a very bad Irish pub, that "Serge Gainsbourg is so French in his morbid feast of romantic tragedy, that not even all the berets, bread sticks and pretentious wine in Bordeaux could ever beat him out of his arrogance." A touch racist, definitely true, but nonetheless, the man is an out an out god. To put my shallow man hat on for a brief moment, even if Gainsbourg had recorded nothing but jingles for ice cream commercials, he would still be a legend. After all, he did bag two of the loveliest women of the twentieth century, Brigitte Bardot and Jane Birkin, and transformed them from everyday sex symbols to brooding, vixenous goddesses.
But that's neither here nor there. Serge bedding those women has nothing to do with anything other than the fact that I like to come up with excuses to google their smouldering images while I'm supposed to be working. Back to Mick.
Mick Harvey's new album, Delirium Tremens, released July this year, is an entire album dedicated to rerecording and transcribing some of Serge Gainsbourg's lesser known songs into English. This is his third of the series, his first two, Intoxicated Man (1995), and Pink Elephants (1997), focusing more on the maestro's more popular anthems such as 'The Ballad of Melody Nelson' and 'Bonnie and Clyde'.
It's a strange phenomenon; the Chanson musings and cigarette sleaze delivery of Serge Gainsbourg is such a far cry from the timidity of Boys Next Door and the savage brutality of the band's later incarnation The Birthday Party, but somehow, they all seem to fit hand in hand. Nick Cave in particular, and especially in the past two decades, seems to have taken a leaf out of the Gainsbourg book, suiting up in classy threads, but not so classy that it disguises his dereliction, and also learning to croon as sexily and poised as the master himself. Harvey plays no invisible hand in all of this; without his vision and raw intuitiveness for music, Cave especially may still be nothing more than a psychotic frontman for an avant-noise band whose sole purpose in life is to intimidate an audience. Not that it wasn't good, it was great, but the bridging of the canyon between those halcyon days, and the mature, oh so adult vibe of Serge Gainsbourg, can truly be attributed to the genius of Mick Harvey.
*Watch the brutality of one of the Birthday Party's infamous live sets as they thump and molest their way through the primal 'Dead Joe'.
The ongoing obsession with Serge Gainsbourg sweeps through incestuous music scenes right across the world, but perhaps no more intensely than that of the Melbourne underground scene of the 1980's. The dinosaurs remaining from those days, Tex Perkins, Kim Salmon, Dave Graney, and the recently deceased Rowland S. Howard, have carried on the tradition of Sergedom in their music to this day. Only Mick Harvey has taken the obsession one step further.
However, he may have bitten off more than he can chew this time, now professing the want to transcribe Gainsbourg's complete discography into his own rerecorded English version. We all wish him well, but he probably more than most must realise that this is a collection dating back to 1958 and contains well over 1,000 songs! Talk about applying pressure to one's self!
The first track of Delirium Tremens, incidentally the unabbreviated version of the DTs, where one experiences psychotic delusions and body trauma as a result of alcohol withdrawal (who knew), is 'The Man With the Cabbage Head'. Opening with the typical flow of the most melancholy of chord sequences and the oh so Serge deeply-spoken refrain of I am the man with the cabbage head, half guy, vegetable from the neck, the song oozes dramatic poise, sexuality, and all the elements of disturbance that you would most certainly find in a moody, early Bad Seeds Gothic Americana composition.
The song is probably everything you would expect from a Serge Gainsbourg cover, with Harvey loathed to stray too far from the original composition, but what is so refreshingly surprising is that, as an Aussie, Mick Harvey can sound so convincingly French! Right down to the arrogant nonchalance. It's brilliant!
The album continues much in the same vain for the successive tracks, the swinging death of 'Deadly Tedium', the kitschy commercial jingle of 'Coffee Colour', and the country road trip of 'The Convict's Song'. But then it all just seems to melt into a sticky-carpeted, dimly-lit maelstrom, where the listener can almost choke on the cigarette smoke oozing from the speakers.
Track 5, the dark, then light, then dark again, 'SS C'est Bon' actually surpasses Gainsbourg's original in brood, quirk and overall Frenchness. Its deep, resonant piano trundles through some shyly sinister motions before the accented Mick loads up with a sandpaperish rant, reminiscent of Captain Beefheart or even the scattered incoherence of a death metal singer. Broken up only by the safety barrier of conventional backing vocals, 'SS C'est Bon' then descends into a bridge so accusatory and doomy in its operatic attack, that it would make Rammstein's Till Lindemann gush with parental pride. The song is one sick puppy.
Confirming 'Delirium Tremen's' swan dive into madness, is the album's longest track and furthest hark back to Harvey's early Bad Seed's days, the creeping 'I Envisage'. Sounding more like a Rowland S. Howard staple than anything that came from the suave mind of Serge Gainsbourg, the song's lineage swings a sinister pendulum, showcasing a metronomic bass line that prowls the night, stalking sophisticated cigarette smoking ladies in fishnets and garish lipstick down dark alleyways. It really does. Just listen to it. Underneath the pretence of impending doom, lies an eerie wind that gusts throughout, in subtle high-pitched squalls around a ghosting Mick Harvey, whispering his envisages, ultimately envisaging the worst. This, potentially, has classic written all over it.
Riding through the remaining six songs on the album, is a mixed array of genre hopping that really does serve to enlighten the listener that neither Mick Harvey, nor Serge Gainsbourg, are solely about doom and gloom. After the spooky 'I Envisage' comes the quirky 'A Day Like Any Other', a track that is about as poppy and la-la-la as Mick Harvey is ever likely to get. The country tinged 'A Violent Poison (That's What Love Is)' follows, and then comes the most straightforward Serge Gainsbourg moment since the death of the man himself. 'More and More, Less and Less' almost puts Gainsbourg to shame with its Gainsbourgness, staccato chord sequences, whispering breathy baritonic vocals that orgasm in squirts of sleaze and lust, and of course, a semi-educational lyric of life musing.
*To watch another classic moment of Gainsbourgness, check the video below.
Above all else, Delirium Tremens is one belter of an album. Serge pretension or not, this slab of avant-education kills. The album rounds out with what could easily pass as a Nick Cave croon circa-1997, 'The Decadence'. And it is, decadent, and presents itself as the perfect rounding out of what could easily go down in latter years as a true highlight in the already lit Mick Harvey catalogue. Now, as the pre-eminent connoisseur of all things Serge, Harvey's presence is in high demand, invited to give talks, lectures and conservation, on and of the man, and his vast catalogue of genre defining songs. Serge Gainsbourg is a poet, much more so than most singers or musicians could ever hope to be, and in his spiritual afterlife, in Mick, he has chosen the perfect vessel in which to deliver his continued message of bleak, oh so French romanticism, to the English speaking world.
*To listen to the brilliant 'Delirium Tremens' in full, hit this.