The return of the widow Gainsbourg, with friends
Though her former partner has been dead since 1991, Rendez-vous is only the second Birkin album not to consist solely of songs written, produced or arranged (or all three) by Serge Gainsbourg. But it’s impossible to avoid his spirit; indeed, Birkin’s history is the stuff of opener “Je m’appelle Jane”, a superb calling card written with rising French. world-pop alchemist Mickey 3D, which skips like some gypsy-gangsta brag, Mickey’s Sergeish growls answered with innocent mischief by Birkin the breathy choirgirl.
After this caper, wistful melancholy descends, but in other ways its Romany hop sets the pace. While a thoroughly French affair, Rendez-vous, with Birkin calling in collaborators from around the globe, extends the world-tripping of her last recording, Arabesque (which saw her transpose Gainsbourg to north Africa). Contributors include Francoise Hardy, fellow veteran of France’s bubblegum scene, duetting on the gorgeously orchestrated teen lament “Surannee”; Brazilian legend Caetano Veloso, providing lazy bossa-tropicalia on “O Leaozinho”; Yosuke Inoue, the ‘Japanese Dylan’; Beth Gibbons, whose characteristically spooked and lonely “Strange Melody” sees Birkin’s singing become spoken-word, exhaling bruised drama; and Bryan Ferry, who helps remodel “In Every Dream Home A Heartache”?if the notion of duetting on a song about solitary erotomania seems contradictory to the point of perversion, remember: perversion is the point. Here, Ferry’s atrophied vocal almost out-creeps the original.
Birkin’s greatest weapon has always been the exquisite tension aroused by her own perfectly imperfect voice, between cut-glass naivety and emotional candour; how close that fragility can come to breaking. Although occasionally here the voice does break (Alain Chamfort’s lachrymose “T’as Pas Le Droit d’Avoir Moins Mal Que Moi” is a little ragged), care has been taken throughout to provide the most complementary frame; the styles are eclectic but always minimalist, never intruding on Birkin’s deeply personal space.
It’s not flawless (Brian “Placebo” Molko’s composition of adolescent angst, “Smile”, for example, is as subtle as a donkey in a lift), but Rendez-vous amply demonstrates that Birkin retains a passion for adventure that puts divas one-third her age to shame. When she’s good, she’s very, very good. Still.