‘Intoxicated Women’ represents the fourth and final instalment of Mick Harvey’s translated exploration of the Serge Gainsbourg songbook. The series began in 1995 with the release of ‘Intoxicated Man’, which was promptly followed by ‘Pink Elephants’ in 1997. After a gap of nearly 20 years, the two albums were given a timely reissue, prompting Harvey to consider the project unfinished and revisit the Gainsbourg back catalogue for further gems.
Both ‘Intoxicated Women’ and what would become the third album in the series, ‘Delerium Tremens’, don't have the feel of either bonus tracks or offcuts from the original two albums. They stand in their own right as highly accomplished collections of songs, instantly recognisable as the work of Gainsbourg but immediately and entrancingly redolent of Mick Harvey’s own distinctive style.
‘Intoxicated Women’ focuses on songs that Gainsbourg wrote or performed with a range of chanteuses, many of which were unknown to Harvey until his research brought them to his attention. In the spirit of the project, Harvey’s own voice here takes a relative backseat to a range of collaborators, with Xanthe Waite, Channthy Kak, Sophia Brous, Lyndelle-Jayne Spruyt, Jess Ribeiro and Andrea Schroeder either singing alongside Harvey or taking centre stage. In doing so, they represent the songs that Gainsbourg wrote for the likes of Brigitte Bardot and Juliette Greco.
As before, Harvey’s latest album does much to alter the misconception that Gainsbourg was little more than a louche, womanising so-and-so only capable of producing kitsch-y songs dominated by sex and decadence. Songs like ‘Prévert’s Song’ (‘Chanson de Prévert’) with Jess Ribeiro or ‘While Re-Reading Your Letter’ (‘En Relisant Ta Lettre’) with Sophia Brous, are so loaded with pathos and the elusive concept of suadade as to be muted emotional symphonies; it rather has the effect of reminding you that songwriting of such resounding emotional depth sadly has little place in the modern world.
It's certainly a world away from the likes of ‘Je T’Aime… Moi Non Plus’, for which Gainsbourg is perhaps still (unfairly) best known; Harvey recorded that track in English for ‘Pink Elephants’ with Anita Lane. For ‘Intoxicated Women’, Harvey tackles the song again, this time in German with Andrea Schroeder. The unwieldy harshness of the German language in what was essentially an oversexed ballad adds a strange dimension to ‘Ich Liebe Dich… Ich Dich Auch Nicht’, but then again it was strange enough to start with.
Still, for every earnest piece here, some of the finest moments on ‘Intoxicated Women’ are given over to some insanely groovy and frankly bonkers songs. ‘Baby Teeth, Wolfy Teeth’ (‘Dents de Lait, Dents de Loup’), originally written for yé yé singer France Gall and here delivered by Harvey and his son Solomon, or ‘The Homely Ones’ (‘Les Petits Boudins’) with Xanthe Waite are moments of sheer, unadulterated abandonment, all jangly period guitars and exuberant excess.
As with any Harvey project, the musicianship is of the highest, yet understated, order. The multi-instrumentalist Harvey and longtime collaborator JP Shilo have a keen ear for quality arrangements, here augmenting Gainsbourg’s words with beautiful strings and sensitive musical backdrops that perfectly complement the endless mystique of Harvey’s muse. This album may finally conclude the project that Mick Harvey set about tentatively back in 1995, but that much time spent with the music of your idol will inevitably and wonderfully find a receptive outlet in Harvey’s own work.
Words: Mat Smith
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