For someone who’s always stood in the shadows, first of Nick Cave and now of P.J. Harvey, Mick Harvey has always shown a quiet intelligence that has sustained nearly five decades in the music industry. Based between Berlin and Melbourne, his associations with more flamboyant figures such as the late Roland P. Howard and Simon Bonney of Crime and the City Solution have tended to obscure him from the limelight. The June release of Delirium Tremens, Mick Harvey’s third album of translated songs by scabrous French magician of pop music Serge Gainsbourg, is his second return to the poet and pornographer’s cult output in a slow-burning project since Intoxicated Man in 1995. This at first passed almost unnoticed, although it included succès de scandale such as ‘Lemon Incest’, the song Gainsbourg recorded with his daughter Charlotte, which reached no.2 on the French charts in 1984, when Charlotte was just 13 and ‘Initials BB’ his ode to Bardot, with Anita Laine. It was followed in 1997 by Pink Elephants, which added another 16 of the maestro’s most well-known songs, including the super-erotic 1969 ‘Je t’aime – moi non plus’ for which Nick Cave and Anita Lane provided English vocals and female orgasms . It is by now probably one of the most covered songs in English by everyone from Donna Summer to the Pet Shop Boys to Abigail in Australia (it reached no. 5 in Sydney in 1973), and sampled by Kylie, as well as Madonna, Malcom McLaren, Einsturzende Neubaten, Pyschic TV, and Icelandic group Baggalútur.
Harvey relates how when he was living in Berlin in the 1980s, a French friend called Olivier gave him a tape of the French originals, and he gradually set about having them translated and recording them. He is not a French speaker, although he reads the language, and these were his first solo albums away from the Bad Seeds, Crime and the City Solution and his other groups, as it were. Gainsbourg is of course notoriously difficult to translate, as his lyrics are full of word play, and when I asked his former partner Jane Birkin, who has toured Australia twice with a Gainsbourg repertoire in French, the last time in 2012, what she thought of Harvey’s renditions, she said she thought translation was the biggest problem. However, Harvey gets pretty close, even if all the nuances can’t always be covered, and he has said that he often modifies the lyrics to get the rhyme right.
Gainsbourg wrote more than 500 songs before his death in 1993, the lyrics of most of which have been published. And his influence has gradually spead into Anglophone music despite his obscurity during his lifetime. Harvey returned to these first two albums in 2014, when Mute re-released them as a double CD and vinyl. This re-release came with a short promotional film-interview by Don Letts and a series of tours by Harvey and his band, in Australia, the UK and Europe, which by this stage included Xanthe Waite, who covers vocals on 3 songs on Delirium Tremens. Performing the songs live Harvey said he found so much fun that he ventured into more recordings, which led to Delirium Tremens.
All three album titles refer to intoxication, which Gainsbourg made a habit of, but Harvey is a much more moderate person, and his often low-key, ironic versions of the songs strike a different, often muted tone from the originals. Delirium Tremens includes more obscure Gainsbourg tracks, such as ‘The Man with a Cabbage Head’ from 1976, and ‘Coffee Colour’ and ‘Deadly Tedium’ from the late 60s and early 70s, as well as five songs from a 1967 TV special starring Anna Karina, which include the brutal ‘A Violent Poison (That’s What Love is)’ and ‘Don’t Say a Thing.’ The most controversial song is about Nazism, ‘SS C’est Bon’ (Est-ce Est-ce Si Bon)’, from the 1975 album Rock around the Bunker: ‘”These Senseless Assassins / An Assassin’s Association / Since the Anschluss these suckers / Exsanguinate the sweet Jew / SS c’est Bon c’est bon c’est Bon (It’s all good)’, rather more savage in the Jewish Gainsbourg’s original version. The final track, the funereal ‘The Decadance’, describes a dance that ‘Even more/Than our deaths/Ties our souls/And our bodies’ in a fitting duet with Beale. There are even a couple of Australian references – a song called ‘Boomerang’ about the vacillations of love, and ‘The Convict’s Song’ (Chanson du forçat) from 1967, in which the narrator declares himself ‘both a forger and a sham’. ‘Envisage’ is a track Gainsbourg co-wrote with 80s new wave singer Alain Bashung, which Harvey does in a muted version which is arguably less effective than the original. ‘Deadly Tedium’ is probably one of the most scathing songs ever about boredom: ‘of course there’s nothing to say / when we’re horizontal / but we don’t have anything to say / when we’re vertical / so to kill the time / between some sex and the next / I take my newspaper and biro / and I fill in the As and Os’.
A notable presence on all three Harvey/Gainsbourg albums is Bertrand Burgalat, a French composer who plays bass on some tracks here, and worked with Gainsbourg as well as producing albums by Laibach and Kraftwerk, and is also influenced by avant-garde classical music. Another man in the shadows? Harvey is promising a fourth Gainsbourg album before the end of the year, this time delving even more into obscurity and focusing on songs the composer wrote for women singers. He deserves our gratitude for bringing all these songs out into the light.
You can find more information on Mick Harvey here.