Words: Dominic Valvona

Monolith Cocktail - Mick Harvey 'Delirium Tremens’

Inspired and finding it far more fun than he originally envisaged, Mick Harvey’s 90s English translations of the louche coffee society genius of wit, salacious and often dark humoured song, Serge Gainsbourg, were given a new lease of life in 2014. To coincide with the anniversary of the bawdry polymath’s birth, Harvey’s moiety of homages, Intoxicated Man and Pink Elephants were re-issued and followed up with a small number of select live shows in Australia and Europe (including shows at Primavera and London’s Union Chapel).

Invigorated by this return to the back catalogue, the one-time Bad Seed and his present congruous band mates, which include the assiduous multi-instrumentalist J.P. Shilo and the no-less talented Glen Lewis and Hugo Cran, set up camp in Harvey’s Melbourne base of operations to record another two volumes of Gainsbourg prose.


To be released a few months apart, Volume 4: Intoxicated Women, as the title may suggest, will be an all-female tribune with half a dozen vocalists channelling Gainsbourg’s various ‘put-upon’ subjects of both reciprocated and unreciprocated desire. Whilst Volume 3: Delirium Tremens pulls together lesser known, and sometimes forgotten, singles and album tracks, five of which are from the 1967 TV special Anna: starring the Danish actress and for a few years during the 60s, the wife and muse of French cinema auteur Jean-Luc Godard, Hanne Karin Bayer, who adopted the Anna Karina persona and lent her vocals to the accompanying Gainsbourg soundtrack.

Using a familiar set up as before but with the luling, la la tones of both Xanthe Waite and Harvey’s wife Katy Beale stepping in for previous femme fatale Anita Lane, as the Gainsbourg muses Karina and Jane Birkin. Recalled for the various string arrangements, Bertrand Burgalat once again adds a certain orchestral elegance and gravitas to proceedings.

And so the timpani rolls, the chamber pop choruses chime with despondent resignation and the inebriated waltz of spiralling contempt is once more suffocating. Harvey’s often dry burr and creepy, verging on a voyeuristic Jarvis Cocker hiding in the wardrobe levels of sinister, narration is in fine fettle; beginning with the opening Gauloises smoked baritone sung minor requiem ‘L’homme à Tête De Chou’ (‘The Man with The Cabbage Head’). Taken from the concept album of the same name, this typical tale of an older lothario protagonist goofing after a ‘free-minded’ younger object of passion more or less sums up Gainsbourg’s pursuits, and continued his fascination during the 70s for producing these kinds of concept-based thematic projects.

And like many of those records, which Harvey translates on this collection, they left their audience at the time dumbfounded and confused, selling few copies, though critically well received in later years. Despite those carnal declarations of undying love, Gainsbourg was often cynical and enjoyed goading his pubic. Another of the concept epoch albums, Rock Around The Bunker, was Gainsbourg’s very own Springtime For Hitler. Dealing with his childhood memories, both real and vividly imagined, growing up under the jackboot of the Nazis, this theatrical dark comedy played on Gainsbourg Jewish ancestry. Far from shying away, Gainsbourg penned a series of satirised bombastic anthem piss-takes. Harvey has chosen to take on one of the album’s most hellish gratuitous stomps, ‘Est-ce Est-ce Si Bon’ (‘SS C’est Bon’). Menacing, even sneered, with a ridiculous accompaniment of the nationalistic anthem and black leather SS parade shtick, Harvey drives home the caustic wit.

Far less decadently morose and daunting, there’s a number of earlier singles from the late 50s and early 60s period. Harvey wearily whirls and staggers with a certain flair to an enervated jazz rhumba on his version of the title track ‘Ce Mortel Ennui’ (‘Deadly Tedium’), and in a hushed tone does his best to raise his head from a lovers hangover on the jaunty ‘Couleur Café’ (‘Coffee Colour’). There’s also a pumped outlaw country version of the 1967 classic prisoner’s lament ‘Chanson de Forcat’ (‘The Convict Song’) to look forward to: a particular highlight of the album for me.

From the televised Anna special and soundtrack, Harvey has chosen a quintet of romanticised and resigned paeans, laments and elegies. Though already providing a wistful, sometimes-coquettish pop sigh, to a number of the previous tracks, Xanthe Waite now takes leads or duets with Harvey. There’s belle époque chanteuse heartache on ‘Un Jour Comme Un Autre’ (‘A Day Like Any Other’), and a lingering trace of ‘Je t’aime…moi non plus’ on ‘De Plus en Plus De Moins en Moins’ (‘More and More, Less and Less’). And the enchanting ‘Ne Dis Rien’ (‘Don’t Say A Thing’) defies the wry wit and cynicism of most Gainsbourg material for heartfelt declarations of adoration.

Harvey performs the final duet with his wife Katy, standing in for Gainsbourg’s English muse Birkin, on ‘La Décadanse’ (‘The Decadence’). You could imagine billowing white gauzy curtains blowing, as the two lovers drift together to embrace only to reject each other on this stirring waltz style ballad. It is a wonderfully romanticised closer, handled with a steady dose of reverence and fun, like most of the album. Though some fans of the French maverick won’t be so enamoured by this treatment, let alone the English translations, Harvey and his collaborators have reinterpreted Gainsbourg into something both accessible and joyful. Pitched somewhere between The Divine Comedy and The Bad Seeds, but with an idiosyncratic Gaelic shrug, this latest volume in the Gainsbourg works is magnifique.

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