Charlotte Gainsbourg – review

Somerset House, London

"The songs that we sing, do they mean anything to the people we're singing them to?" asks Charlotte Gainsbourg, closing the main part of her show with the 2006 track The Songs That We Sing. Good question. The actor/musician daughter of Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin has spent the past hour shepherding her band through a set of tunes comprised mainly of texture and atmosphere, with a figurative fug of Gauloise smoke drifting above. Their "meaning" is debatable, but, as with Gainsbourg's musical career as a whole, their effect derives from their Gallic coolness.

Dressed in white and seated for most of the set, Gainsbourg is a picture of languid detachment, loading every syllable, both English and the occasional French, with disenchantment. It's classic chanteuse stuff – for the US version, see Lana del Rey – but colossally seductive, and all the more so for the fact that she barely speaks except to introduce Ouvertures Eclair – "written by my father, and one of my first songs". This is a breezy 80s synth-ditty that summons up a time when French pop wasn't mentioned in polite company; she has since, suffice to say, moved on.

She collaborated with Beck on her last studio album, IRM, and his influence looms over these ethereal, distorted symphonies. Seemingly dozens of discrete sounds form a dizzying whole – guitarist Connan Mockasin, an established Kiwi songwriter, seems responsible for half the effects – over which, perched on her stool, Gainsbourg aloofly presides.

The Jarvis Cocker co-composition Jamais shows the vulnerable Gainsbourg, as she whispers, "Don't believe what you read in those interviews", and a frisky cover of Bowie's Ashes to Ashes displays a sense of fun. In the booming Paradisco, she even has the obligatory dance number. But the prevailing image is of Gainsbourg sitting behind her mic, detached and unknowable.


Caroline Sullivan

The GuardianTramp

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