A few years back I posted a positive review of a reissue of Mick Harvey’s mid-’90s Serge Gainsbourg covers albums – Intoxicated Man and Pink Elephants – and now I have to praise it again since its release inspired Harvey to revisit the concept almost two decades later and record the songs that would become Delirium Tremens. The concept of Harvey recording English translations of Gainsbourg’s songs hasn’t changed, however Delirium Tremens exists in an entirely different cultural context. Back in the ’90s these albums were like a public service for music geeks since Gainsbourg’s albums were hard to find, and even if you snagged one you didn’t know what he was saying unless you spoke French. Of course, since then the internet has made everything readily available, so Delirium Tremens is now simply one good performer covering the songs of another. That it begins with a mid-70s obscurity called “The Man With The Cabbage Head” (or “L’homme a Tete De Chou”) tells you right off the bat you’re not gonna hear Gainsbourg’s best known material. Harvey’s already recorded most of those songs anyway, so instead he digs beneath the surface to find gold in obscurities. He does just that with a set of largely unfamiliar songs that showcase his natural fit as a Gainsbourg interpreter as well as the arranging skills he’s honed over decades working with Nick Cave, PJ Harvey and his own solo projects. “Coffee Colour” and “Deadly Tedium” are both jazz cabaret, with witty lyrics and inventive playing from an interesting cast of backing musicians. “I Envisage” is a different beast altogether, with a none-more-black, almost Joy Division-like, performance that matches the bleak visions of Gainsbourg’s lyrics perfectly. “SS C’est Bon” is a Holocaust-era black comedy with rapid-fire lyrics that are hard to understand amidst the chaotic music, but worth looking up for a lesser-heard example of Gainsbourg’s warped genius. The album ends with Harvey and Katey Beale doing a stunning version of “The Decadance” which isn’t that far removed from the original, but is beautifully arranged all the same. It’s a perfect ending to a great album, and an exciting look ahead to Harvey’s fourth album of Gainsbourg covers – focusing on his work with female singers – planned for later this year.
During a period of downtime with Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds in the mid-’90s, Mick Harvey set about translating and recording two album’s worth of covers from Serge Gainsbourg’s thirty year discography, 1995’s Intoxicated Man, and Pink Elephants from 1997. These days Gainsbourg is a well-known figure, with a biopic and multiple tribute albums cementing his reputation as an influential artist. But back then his following outside of France was small, and his music difficult to come by. Harvey hoped to spread word of Serge’s brilliance beyond the confines of France with these albums, and translated the lyrics into English to let Serge’s non-French fans in on what the hell he was saying in those great (and often downright filthy) pop songs. Yes, in 2014 you can find and translate the lyrics to just about anything with a few mouse clicks, but back then it wasn’t so easy. With the exception of the translations, Harvey’s versions stay pretty reverential, keeping the melodies and much of the original instrumentation fully intact. Intoxicated Man is the more developed of the two albums, with Harvey employing a host of outside musicians to flesh out the songs. Most notable of these is Anita Lane, who handles the roles of Brigitte Bardot (including lead vocals on “Harley Davidson”, a Gainsbourg-penned number) and Jane Birkin. The leftover recordings from Intoxicated Man were released as Pink Elephants, with Harvey playing most of the music on his own, handling more instruments than any one man should know how to play. Once again Anita Lane does the female vocal parts, including a duet with Nick Cave on the sweeping love song (of sorts) “I Love You…Nor Do I” (or “Je Taime…Moi Non Plus”).
This new edition includes both albums, remastered, in one double-disc package. It also has two previously unreleased bonus tracks: a version of “Dr. Jeckyll” where Harvey swaps out the original’s swinging-sixties mod-pop for a surprisingly noisy Jesus and Mary Chain-ish reading, and an effectively tender “Run From Happiness”.
It’s great. Buy it. But first watch what happens when a drunk Serge Gainsbourg encountered Whitney Houston on live tv: