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Mick Harvey - Delirium Tremors

  by Malcolm Carter

published: 23 / 8 / 2016

Mick Harvey - Delirium Tremors
Label: Mute Records
Format: CD


Former Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds guitarist Mick Harvey takes a third journey through Serge Gainsbourg’s extensive back catalogue, this time digging a little deeper and revealing some obscure gems

Bring introduced to an artist's work through interpretations by another musician or band is nothing new. Way back we had both the Byrds and, to a lesser extent, Manfred Mann, bringing out the popiness in Dylan’s work that the writer could never achieve and in doing so introducing his music to an audience who would usually pass him by. Rod Stewart, by covering a couple of Tom Waits songs, surely made people curious to search out more by Waits which can’t be a bad thing. It’s surprising how many of today's well-respected musicians have cited Serge Gainsbourg as an influence and how they have always been into his music. While Gainsbourg was a major star in his native France, if you asked most of the general UK record-buying public to name more than one of his songs at any time since 1969, you would be met with a blank stare. In truth Gainsbourg’s music wasn’t always immediately accessible. It took time to digest all that was happening especially for French non-speakers, but spending time getting inside his songs always proved worthwhile in the end. It’s just a shame more people didn’t have the patience during his lifetime… Australian Mick Harvey (The Birthday Party, The Bad Seeds) has gone further than most in keeping Gainsbourg’s music alive and in introducing this extraordinary musician to a wider audience. Harvey released his first collection of Gainsbourg’s work as ‘Intoxicated Man’ in 1995. By translating sixteen of Gainsbourg’s more familiar songs into English and by having the wonderful Anita Lane add her vocals to a handful of the tracks, Harvey immediately widened their appeal to UK buyers in one fell swoop. But it wasn’t just the translation that added another dimension to the songs, as Harvey’s own unique vocals and idiosyntric musical flair proved to be the perfect setting for Gainsbourg’s music. Two years later and Harvey released ‘Pink Elephants’, another collection of Gainsbourg’s work, a further sixteen songs, again touching upon some of Gainsbourg’s better-known work, this time including Harvey’s interpretation of the song that brought Gainsbourg to the attention of Brits back in 1969, 'Je T’Aime…Moi Non Plus' featuring Anita Lane taking the Bardot/Birkin part. It’s difficult now, nearly five decades later, to convey the impact this one song had when it originally appeared. An older, lecherous-sounding Frenchman, speak-singing, the response to his words delivered in a breathy whisper by a young English girl above one of the prettiest melodies ever, it was both shocking for the times yet fascinatingly beautiful. And banned, of course. The song was one of Gainsbourg’s most instantly accessible pieces of music up to that point and highlighted all that was captivating about his music. ‘Pink Elephants’ showed, once again, that even after translating Gainsbourg’s lyrics into English, Harvey could retain that mystery and atmosphere that prevailed through all of Gainsbourg’s music and yet still add just enough of his own vision to make the results as fascinating as Gainsbourg’s originals. 2016 and although Harvey has been far from quiet musically we’ve had to wait 21 years for the follow-up to ‘Pink Elephants’. In the meantime others have tried the same trick, 2006’s ‘Monsieur Gainsbourg Revisited’ readily comes to mind. Fourteen songs were again translated into English but covered by an array of mainly contemporary artists (although Jane Birkin, Francoise Hardy and Marianne Faithful all contribute). As fine as that collection, however, was and even though some of the artists had a connection to Gainsbourg that Harvey didn’t, it still appeared that when it came to English translations of Gainsbourg’s songs that still captured the original spirit and magic there are few that come close to Harvey. ‘Delirium Tremens’ is Harvey’s latest collection of Gainsbourg songs. This time we only get twelve tracks and the chosen dozen delve deeper into the Frenchman’s body of work than Harvey’s previous two collections. At the centre of the album are five songs taken from the 1967 musical comedy ‘Anna’ that Gainsbourg wrote the music and lyrics for. Portishead covered ‘Un Jour Comme Un Autre’ from this soundtrack on ‘Monsieur Gainsbourg Revisited’ which sounded exactly like Portishead covering Gainsbourg does in your head. Harvey’s version, with vocals from Xanthe Waite, however, expands on the beauty of the original exactly as Harvey has done in his previous collections. That’s what sets Harvey apart from other interpreters. If there’s beauty in a Gainsbourg song Harvey draws out that beauty. If there’s darkness in the original Harvey goes even deeper into the unknown and makes the song even more unsettling and fascinating, all this while injecting his own Bad Seeds swagger into each and every cut. Even those that have lived with the soundtrack from ‘Anna’ for years will find much to discover and love in Harvey’s readings. Harvey has added a whole new dimension to this often overlooked soundtrack. While there has never been any doubt that Harvey understands Gainsbourg’s music more than most, his work on the ‘Anna’ selections overshadow Harvey’s earlier, brilliant covers. Apart from the ‘Anna’ songs, Harvey tackles songs that go as far back as the late 50’s and early 60’s. The album opens with ‘The Man with the Cabbage Head’ the title track from 1976’s concept album ‘L'Homme à Tête de Chou’ and once again Harvey adds his own twist to the song. For all the appeal of the originals, Harvey brings out (and it’s not just due to the translation) more shade and light to the songs than Gainsbourg did on almost every track. Some will feel that songs such as ‘The Decadance’, originally a duet between Jane Birkin and Gainsbourg were perfection as they stood and shouldn’t have been tampered with but the version here, a duet between Harvey and his wife Katy Beale, is given an even more romantic sheen than the Birkin/Gainsbourg cut, turning it into yet another brilliant reading which loses none of the attraction of the original while adding so much. As expected with any album from Mick Harvey there is so much ground covered here. Touches of prog rock, the hard rock stance of ‘A Violent Person’, the rumbling bass-driven ‘I Envisage’, which is six and half minutes recalling the Bad Seeds at their most menacing through to the aforementioned popiness of ‘A Day Like Any Other’ (Un Jour Comme Un Autre), Harvey covers all bases. Despite, or maybe because of, the unfamiliarity of most of these songs to those who have only dipped a tentative toe into the murky waters of Gainsbourg’s back catalogue, there’s a good argument to made that ‘Delirium Tremens’ is the most cohesive and successful collection of Gainsbourg songs that Harvey has put together to date. In many ways it shouldn’t work but it does and it works so well. With the most successful tracks here being Harvey’s selections from the ‘Anna’ soundtrack, maybe his next move should be his interpretation of a complete Gainsbourg album. Let’s just hope Harvey hasn’t called time on this project just yet. There’s more to explore and twenty years is too long to wait for the next instalment.

Track Listing:-
1 The Man With The Cabbage Head
2 Deadly Tedium
3 Coffee Colour
4 The Convict's Song
5 SS C'est Bon
6 I Envisage
7 A Day Like Any Other
8 A Violent Poison That's What Love Is
9 More and More, Less and Less
10 Don't Say A Thing
11 Boomerang
12 The Decadance

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