A lot happened to Charlotte Gainsbourg between the release of 5:55 and IRM. Along with appearing in I'm Not There as one of Bob Dylan's wives, a 2007 water skiing accident pushed her brain to the side and filled her skull with blood, a condition that should have killed or paralyzed her. After emergency surgery, Gainsbourg was fine physically, but still convinced she could die at any moment, undergoing several MRI scans to prove she was all right. She also took one of her most daring roles as an actress, appearing in Lars Von Trier's uncompromising film Antichrist as a violently deranged, grieving mother who disfigures herself and her husband. This mix of fragility and boldness is also the heart of IRM, Gainsbourg's collaboration with Beck. As with 5:55, which featured Nigel Godrich, Jarvis Cocker, and Air, her choice of collaborators is perfect, but the results couldn't be more different. Where her previous album was ethereal and ephemeral, IRM is exciting and eclectic. Beck and Gainsbourg bring out the best in each other: His songwriting and production are so sympathetic and wide-ranging that he's like a director guiding Gainsbourg to inspired performances. Meanwhile, she brings an emotionality and presence to Beck’s flights of fancy that make them more grounded than they would have been as his own songs. IRM still offers plenty of beautiful French atmosphere, but it’s more mussed than on 5:55: The way the strings turn from romantic to a little sinister on the slinky “Le Chat Du Café Des Artistes” is decidedly jolie laide, while “La Collectioneuse” is as eerie as it is lovely. However, the album delivers much more than looser versions of where Gainsbourg has been before. IRM’s title track is a hallucinatory meditation on Gainsbourg’s post-surgery experiences that incorporates the sound of MRI scans (IRM is the French abbreviation of MRI) with a tribal, distorted beat and detached vocals that are closer to Broadcast than any of her previous music. Elsewhere, she dives into deceptively simple folky pop with “Me and Jane Doe” while “Trick Pony”’s breathy sexuality and strutting beats feel like Beck repaying the favor of sampling Serge Gainsbourg’s “Melody Nelson” on Sea Change’s “Paper Tiger.” The pair gets more daring as IRM unfolds, with Beck casting Gainsbourg as a world-weary siren on “Dandelion”’s bluesy shuffle, and a sneering rebel on the brittle “Greenwich Mean Time,” which makes more noise than all of the songs on 5:55 put together. Gainsbourg’s mental and physical healing process unites the album’s experiments, making them personal. “Heaven Can Wait”’s joyful stomp is self-explanatory, but when she sings “you could learn to crawl where you used to walk” on “Vanities,” or “It doesn’t take a miracle to raise a heart from the dead” on “Time of the Assassins,” it adds even more depth. Playful, heartfelt, and unexpected, IRM gives Gainsbourg’s music a new lease on life.
by Heather Phares