Brit-born actress and recording artist -- and longtime French resident -- Jane Birkin may have gained fame and fortune as being the protégé -- and the greatest love -- of composer, director, and national French hero the late Serge Gainsbourg, but her long reign as cultural heroine and quirky pop vocalist has been the result of her own toil and sweat. One would never consider that the lanky, ever-thin Birkin, she of the slightly flat, shaky voice, could have this sort of longevity, but the Europeans are far different from Americans and far more embracing than Yanks. Birkin has made a career of recording classic chansons and Gainsbourg songs -- many of the latter were written specifically for or about her -- but on Fictions, she's gone to another level. Along with Svengali engineer, arranger, and producer Renaud Letang -- who has worked with everyone from Birkin (on Rendez-Vous), to Björk, Mocky, Gonzales, Jean Michel Jarre and Alain Chamfort -- she's solicited (in the same way Marianne Faithfull has in the past) original songs form a slew of contemporary artists and recorded a few well-chosen covers to create an album firmly stamped with her heart's seal of tenderness and desperation. Beth Gibbons of Portishead (who appears as a backing vocalist here on her track), Neil Hannon of Divine Comedy, Gonzales, Rufus Wainwright, and Kate Bush, along with the crop of new French chanson writers, Dominique A., Cali, and Arthur H., Birkin also covers Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan's "Alice" and Neil Young's "Harvest Moon." Former Smith Johnny Marr plays guitar and harmonica on select cuts, drummers Mocky and Regis Ceccarelli contribute as well, with most of the instruments being played either in the flesh or via sampling by Gonzales, and string arrangements by Stephane Moucha. Fictions is a warm, somewhat lush and quietly dramatic recording. There is the bittersweet decadence in Hannon's "Home" that sounds like it was written for Birkin's quirky expressiveness. The reading of "Alice" here is far more shocking than on the Waits' version from the album of the same name. Birkin seems to offer her throat to the blade as an expression of her devotion. Conversely, she treats Young's "Harvest Moon" as a cabaret song. The glockenspiel bells and country loops are absorbed inside a piano and a bit of distorted reverb, with the guitar being used merely for atmospheric pleasure. Gibbons' "My Secret" is the finest song here; it is the hinge the album turns on. It's a deeply devotional, slightly twisted, and skeletally arranged song of lost love, and Gibbons backing vocal adds depth and balance to Birkin's high-pitched reediness. The Bush tune, "Mother Stands for Comfort," which is the second from last piece here, works less well. It is a classic keyboard-and-percussion-driven bit of airiness but needs a stronger voice to hold the song in check. The French chansons are just gorgeous, particularly Cali's café ballad "Sans Toi" with a beautiful arrangement that includes a well-placed clarinet and a single guitar note played in every refrain. Dominique A.'s house-fueled "Où Est la Ville?" is a song of amorous violence where Birkin speaks and sings with a guitar loop, a cello, and handclap backbone to propel her through the spoken verses, and when she breaks loose and sings on the chorus, the comfort and daring in her voice transcend the arrangement. The set closes with "Image Fantôme," a spoken word piece with a lyric by the late, infamous French journalist and photographer Hervé Guibert set to Ravel's Pavane Pour un Infante Defunte. It is a fitting and disconcerting way to end this quiet, nearly whimsical meditation on the fictions and realities of love, passage, and acceptance. Birkin has carved a place for herself among the Europeans with her starkness, sincerity, and iconoclasm, as well as with her limited range and quirky delivery. The French love the underdog, the outsider, and those who live on the amorous edge. Whether Birkin actually does or not now, she has and that's enough, and Fictions, in all its emotional honesty and uncanny beauty, is testament to that.
AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek