Even tolerant music fans shudder inwardly at the mention of the concept album, a largely prog rock genre that spawned many of the greatest aesthetic indiscretions of the '70s. L'Homme à Tête de Chou (The Man with the Cabbage Head) is a concept album and shares some of prog's general characteristics, but it's unlike anything emanating from rock's beardy depths. In the spirit of his 1971 masterpiece Histoire de Melody Nelson, Gainsbourg sets this album's brief tale amid a widescreen musical canvas. Whereas Melody Nelson was provocative without being explicit, the gravel-voiced Gallic lecher goes X-rated here -- albeit without sacrificing his poetic élan. In this morbidly comic song cycle the narrator's muse is Marilou, a black shampoo girl: during their ill-fated fling, he descends into unhinged obsession, beats her to death with a fire extinguisher and ends up in a psychiatric hospital (convinced his head has turned into a cabbage). Although the title track retains something of Melody Nelson's cool Baroque pop gravitas, Chou doesn't replicate that earlier record's alternately brooding and soaring melodic grandeur. Instead, it draws on an adventurously varied palette, spanning rock, country, disco, jazz, reggae, and funk. In places, the shifting styles match the different images or situations that Gainsbourg presents, sometimes without concern for subtlety: "Marilou Reggae" finds Marilou grooving to Caribbean sounds, while tribal rhythms on "Transit à Marilou" heavy-handedly signify her exotic sexuality. The songs are most satisfying when the relationship between lyrics and music is less literal, more evocative -- especially "Lunatic Asylum," where tympani, didgeridoo-like drones, dramatic organ, and insistent percussion soundtrack the protagonist's insanity. Elsewhere, subject matter and sound are divorced completely, the cheery funk of "Ma Lou Marilou" contrasting with the narrator's murderous thoughts. L'Homme à Tête de Chou is an underrated Gainsbourg album. Notwithstanding some dubious synth coloring, it's his second-best '70s release, ranking among his finest recordings.
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AllMusic Review by Wilson Neate