As much as classic French pop music is fetishized by American artists, it’s somewhat remarkable at how limited access to it is in the United States. It’s not hard to find an Edith Piaf collection or two, or perhaps a Jacques Brel compilation. And contemporary artists like Phoenix and Daft Punk are considerably popular. Nonetheless, the bulk of chanson history remains somewhat hard to come by stateside. To wit: Serge Gainsbourg’s Histoire de Melody Nelson has never previously been issued a U.S. release. For such a landmark album, complex in its sonic creation and linear storyline, that seems practically criminal.
Seattle’s Light in the Attic Records is doing music fans a solid in the name of justice by releasing Histoire de Melody Nelson in the States with extensive liner notes, an interview with Gainsbourg and printed lyrics in both French and English. The extras are a sweet capper to the album, but that the album is even being released at all is worthy of merit. America has been deprived of Gainsbourg’s ultra-cool, sexy and disturbing masterpiece for too long, and may not have known what it was missing. But if homages from the likes of Beck, Air and David Holmes, plus covers by the likes of Franz Ferdinand and Blonde Redhead should tell you, the influence of Melody Nelson and Gainsbourg extend well beyond success he achieved in his own lifetime.
The sultry, taboo Lolita tale of Histoire de Melody Nelson is one far older than the album itself, but told in a poetic, orchestral manner that’s absolutely stunning. “Melody,” the album’s epic first track, is an iconic song, its sexy, lazy bassline having been borrowed numerous times from other artists. The song progresses dramatically, easing by with Gainsbourg’s descriptions of his Rolls Royce before it hits the title character, a teenage girl riding on her bicycle. He chants “Merde!” He notices her panties beneath her upturned skirt. And he asks her name. “Melody Nelson,” she responds.
Nelson, portrayed by British songbird Jane Birkin, repeats her name numerous times in “Ballade de Melody Nelson,” as Gainsbourg describes her with adoration and infatuation. With “Valse de Melody,” Gainsbourg takes the album from groove-based pop songs to an orchestral track that’s simultaneously romantic and frightening, as is much of the album as a whole. The breezy “Ah! Melody” is a bit more playful, though the weeping strings in the background still suggest melancholy beneath Gainsbourg’s verses of “Tu me’en auras fait faire des conneries” (you’ll make me do some stupid things). It isn’t until “L’Hotel Particulier” that the narrator finally approaches having his lustful way in a hotel room with Melody. While the track is certainly erotic with its slow, carnal funk rhythms, it’s also even more terrifying than before, which is a rabbit hole that the album merely sinks deeper into as it reaches its conclusion.
The primarily instrumental “En Melody” can be seen as the track that parallels the sexual encounter between Melody and her 40-year-old suitor, namely by Birkin’s ecstatic squeals. She laughs, she squeaks—and there’s a bit of an uneasy feeling that comes over the listener, yet the album plays on. And soon enough, Melody is lost in a plane crash. The narrator’s only hope of seeing her alive again is through his ruminations on “Cargo Culte,” in which he describes a tribe on Papua New Guinea that worships among plane wreckage. “Cargo Culte,” a masterpiece of a track on its own, is like a deranged reinterpretation of “Melody,” ultimately featuring the same bassline, but with mangled instrumentation and ghostly backing vocals. It is here where the romance and seediness turns to true horror.
The story arc in Histoire De Melody Nelson need not require French fluency for listeners to follow. In melody (ha!) alone, the album travels from intrigue and discovery to playfulness, sexuality and ultimately a macabre, nightmarish mystique. Some 38 years after its release, Melody Nelson remains a stunning work of art. Its music is truly dazzling, and its storyline is such a complex mix of human emotions that one is sympathetic even at its most unsettling moments. Histoire De Melody Nelson is simply one of the greatest albums of all time, and thank God it’s finally crossed the Atlantic.
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Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.