Now look here: Mick Harvey is Serge Gainsbourg

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The Independent Culture
Serge Gainsbourg's predecessor as the bad boy of chanson, Jacques Brel, has been widely (and often wildly) translated, finding his way into most record collections via David Bowie, Scott Walker, Alex Harvey or Marc Almond. But Serge himself has never really crossed the channel.

His name tends to be associated with the novelty hit, "Je T'Aime (Moi Non Plus)", and even then Jane Birkin's renditions of the orgasmic sighs originally recorded (and then suppressed) by Brigitte Bardot, are more widely remembered than Gainsbourg's subtle lyrical perversity.

It seems appropriate that the man to render the depraved genius of Gainsbourg into English should be Mick Harvey, one of those figures whose contribution to pop music is destined to be appreciated only by the cognoscenti. His work with Nick Cave, first in the Birthday Party and then the Bad Seeds, has been more important than externally noticeable. "Organising things, arranging, doing production," were his roles in those groups. Now his brilliant collection of Gainsbourg covers, Intoxicated Man, should bring him individual renown.

Although Harvey himself is abstemious by comparison, he has a close relation to figures like Cave and Gainsbourg who grapple with private demons.

"It's not the dissipated lifestyle that fascinates me, it's the things that lead to dissipation," he says.

Gainsbourg, like Cave, is fascinated with the madness of amour fou. "But when people are obsessed by that side of things, they're probably quite depressed a lot of the time," he says.

Suicide is a conspicuous motif on Intoxicated Man.

"I don't think Gainsbourg actually wrote that many songs about suicide," he says. "It's just that I managed to pick them out. He's almost light- hearted about it. Something like "Barrel of my 45" is not a straightforward case of someone fantasising about killing themselves; it's a fantasy about the fantasy."

The first thing that strikes you about the album is how close Harvey has come in places to replicating Gainsbourg's original arrangements, which can't in itself have been easy.

"Sometimes I thought the originals captured a special spirit, so I didn't see much need to change them."

In fact, though they seem so similar, when you compare them with the originals, you discover that the sound really is quite different. "69 Year of Love", for example, which opens the collection, has the same sweeping panoramic soundscape as the original but, as Harvey says, "it's rather less of a swinging Sixties escapade".

In others, he has taken one aspect of the original and expanded on it, as in the heartbreakingly beautiful "I Have Come to Tell You That I'm Going", in which a chilly Hammond organ has brought out a melancholic undertone to a lyric that in the original has a rather callous facade.

"I'd always start with an atmospheric platform that derives from Gainsbourg's version. Most of them are quite different, but at the same time they're reminiscent of something about the original."

Take "Lemon Incest", for example, one of Gainsbourg's deliberate forays into taboo, in which he duetted with his teenage daughter Charlotte on a paean to the joys of keeping it in the family. Here, Harvey has extracted the Chopin piano piece that is the basis of the melody, reduced the song to a single part and produced something that sounds genuinely haunting and disturbing.

"The original is the typical Serge thing of juxtaposing what is actually quite sinister with this light disco beat and really doing something that is quite crass, which is taking his favourite classical composer and butchering his music."