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Sunday 18 August 2019

In remembrance of (lovely) things past

Charlotte Gainsbourg has composed her most beautiful album with Rest, her haunting homage to her beloved late half-sister Kate and her departed father Serge

Haunting homage... Charlotte Gainsbourg's raw and personal new album
Haunting homage... Charlotte Gainsbourg's raw and personal new album
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

It was one of the most intriguing movies of the decade, Lars von Trier's doomy dreamscape on depression and apocalypse Melancholia.

Intriguing not least for the disquieting and distracted dialogue between Claire (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg) and Justine (Kirsten Dunst).

Read this aloud and see how quickly your Sunday goes downhill, unless you are chin-stroking existentialists on heavy medication or strong whiskey... or both.

Justine: "All I know is, life on Earth is evil."

Claire: "There may be life somewhere else."

Justine: "But there isn't."

Claire: "How do you know?"

Justine: "Because I know things."

Claire: "Oh yes, you always imagined you did."

Justine: "I know we're alone."

That vast sense of all-consuming aloneness is always in Charlotte Gainsbourg's intense, dreamy, gossamer singing voice - more than ever on her new album, Rest, her fifth, and the follow-up to Stage Whisper (2011).

Rest is explicitly raw and personal. It couldn't be anything else.

In December, 2013, Charlotte's half-sister Kate Barry (the daughter of iconic composer the late John Barry and English chanteuse Jane Birkin) plunged to her death from the fourth floor balcony of her flat in the 16th arrondissement of Paris. Kate was believed to have taken her own life. To properly mourn her death, Charlotte left her hometown of Paris - with her partner, actor/director Yvan Attal and their three children, Ben, Alice and Joe - for New York City.

Listening to the heart-wrenching new album, it is not difficult to understand what she means when she says of Rest that: "It's the first time that I've surrendered myself, and the end result belongs to me."

On the title track, Rest, Charlotte sings "Reste avec moi s'il te plait," meaning: "Stay with me please"). On the heartbreaking Kate, Charlotte is also making a plea for her sibling to remain with her; she sings: "On d'vait vieillir ensemble," which translates roughly to "We should grow old together".

The pain of death is writ large on the song Lying With You where Charlotte sings about her famous father Serge's death, which she witnessed in 1991 when she was 19: "Your bare leg jutting out from the sheet/Without shame and in cold blood."

"I couldn't breathe any more," Gainsbourg told Vogue magazine of her decision to leave Paris for New York. "I don't know if I'll stay [in New York] long because I can feel that it's an in-between, but I'm not prepared to go back to Paris yet. And I don't see any alternatives.

"I've felt that it was so welcoming and so refreshing when I got there. It was a real discovery. It was a question of courage.

"Because it all really assembled in New York after I left Paris, the focus was on my sister because that's all I was really thinking about then.

"And I didn't care if it was good or not. That's what I wanted to say. And say to myself - I didn't really think about what people would hear."

Charlotte told The Sunday Times a few years ago in an interview about how her mother - and Kate's mother - Jane Birkin after Kate's death, was "gone for years. Really gone. She was not there. I mean, she wouldn't get up. If you told her to come over, she would, but she didn't talk, not to my children or to anyone".

Next to all the painful, self-penned analysis of grief, there is the Paul McCartney collaboration Songbird in a Cage (which Rolling Stone magazine described, enticingly, as a song "which suggests The Waitresses produced by Brian Eno") and Ring-a-Ring O'Roses with Daft Punk's Guy-Manuel.

But overall, when you listen to Rest, you are drawn inexorably towards Kate Barry.

As Charlotte told the Economist in an interview: "It's a way for me to make her still a part of my life."

I think she achieves that. Perhaps Kate may truly rest in peace.

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