Jane Birkin - Oh! Pardon tu dormais… Music Album Reviews

Jane Birkin - Oh! Pardon tu dormais… Music Album Reviews
Singing about human complexity, channeling her past with Serge Gainsbourg, and grappling with the death of her daughter, the iconic singer-songwriter sounds battle-scarred but never defeated.

Death stalks Oh! Pardon tu dormais…, the 14th studio album from Francophile English singer Jane Birkin. In 2013, Birkin’s daughter Kate Barry died after falling from the window of her Paris flat, and on Oh! Pardon tu dormais... Birkin directly tackles the subject in her music for the first time. It is an album, she told Vogue recently, grounded in a distinctly unsentimental idea of what makes people human: “all their defects and their cowardliness and their guilt and their complexity.”
Barry isn’t the only phantom here. Serge Gainsbourg, Birkin’s onetime romantic partner and eternal creative inspiration, haunts the record’s classically elegant arrangements, and there is a sense, on songs like “Catch Me if You Can” and “Ghosts,” of Birkin perhaps looking ahead to the end of her own life in lyrics weighed down by absence and loss. “Catch me if you can, my love/I’m almost gone from view,” Birkin sings on “Catch Me if You Can,” the devastating album closer.

The results are an emotional tour de force from an artist who has never gotten her musical due outside of France. (This album, in fact, marks the first time she has written songs in English.) Birkin’s name will forever be linked to the songs Gainsbourg composed for her in the three decades after they met, leaving her better known as an interpreter than a songwriter in her own right. But the lyrics on a song like “Cigarettes,” which addresses her daughter’s death to the tune of a haunting cabaret waltz, are both raw and poetic. You can feel the aching, angry disbelief of a grieving mother in lines like “Ma fillette s’est balancée/Sur le pavé on l’a retrouvée” ("My little girl swayed/On the pavement we found her”). It is a song of deadening sorrow.

Birkin’s voice, too, is in immaculate form. She will never be a singer of operatic technique or vocal swagger—those who know her from Gainsbourg collaborations like “69 Année Érotique” will be aware of her breathy husk of a voice, a weapon of musical stealth rather than a full frontal attack. But her performance here is understated and full of character, emotion pooling in every carefully enunciated syllable. It’s like the work of a master film actor rather than a star of the stage, sly Bob Dylan instead of eager Bruce Springsteen: underplayed and totally believable.

Gainsbourg’s musical influence, meanwhile, can be found all over the album’s arrangements, which have been put together with devout care by Jean-Louis Piérot and Étienne Daho, the latter a legend of French pop. The album’s elegant strings, gently plucked bass guitars, and hints of the baroque sound like Air (on “Pas D’accord”) or Suede (on “Ta Sentinelle”), but only in as much as these acts once borrowed from Gainsbourg’s expansive, cinematic style.

It might seem a disservice to continually compare Birkin to her late collaborator. But Birkin hasn’t shied away from Gainsbourg’s towering prestige in the three decades since his death. Her last album, 2017’s Birkin / Gainsbourg : Le Symphonique, featured orchestral versions of Gainsbourg songs, and this record is home to a number of perfectly judged salutes to his style. The title track, in which Birkin and Daho trade the barbs of frustrated lovers, recalls Birkin’s duets with Gainsbourg on songs like “Je T’aime… Moi Non Plus,” while “F.R.U.I.T.” calls back to Birkin and Gainsbourg’s “Help Camionneur!” in its references to truck drivers and hitchhiking.

She does not dwell upon her grief: The title track is both funny and tragic in its astutely observed back and forth—the opening lines translate as “Oh, I’m sorry, you were sleeping/Yes but I’m not any more, as you can well see”—while “Je Voulais Être une Telle Perfection Pour Toi!” is unexpectedly funky, its slinky break and chicken-scratch guitar recalling the opulent hotel-lounge hop of French producers like Kid Loco.

Throughout, Birkin seems to draw strength from adversity. Like Bob Dylan’s late-period masterpiece Rough and Rowdy Ways or Marianne Faithfull’s devastating 2018 album Negative Capability, Oh! Pardon tu dormais… is weary but never resigned, battle-scarred but never defeated, a work of personal reckoning marked by a frantic desire to connect, as our time slips away. None of us can cheat death; but to face it with Birkin’s fortitude and poetic skill is to score a minor victory.
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About Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera

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Jane Birkin - Oh! Pardon tu dormais… Music Album Reviews Jane Birkin - Oh! Pardon tu dormais… Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on Tuesday, February 23, 2021 Rating: 5

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