I hope, if my brain ever tries to kill me and I survive, that I can sing about it. If you’ve read any other review of Charlotte Gainsbourg’s IRM (that’s French for MRI – you know, the thing where they stick you in a big machine and it takes pictures of your brain), you’ve read about how she had a massive brain hemorrhage after what was thought to be a relatively minor water skiing wipeout. It’s worth repeating in every review, though, because Gainsbourg’s head was filling with fucking blood. That’s not a small reminder of your mortality – that’s the Grim Reaper using your brain for a bathtub and, after a good soak, punching your ticket. That is, to use the most appropriate phrase I can think of, fucking terrifying. Paralyzing, even.
So an album named for a brain scanning, hemorrhage-detecting device is bound to trend a bit toward the thematically grisly. It takes all of one song for Gainsbourg to sing about drilling her brain full of holes, though the overall feel of the album is thankfully less dour. Beck apparently wrote, produced and played just about everything on IRM and it’s the best thing he’s done since Guero. He adeptly tailors the music to Gainsbourg’s limited (though charming) vocal range and even lends a little vocal help to “Heaven Can Wait,” a tune that wouldn’t have been out of place on his stellar Mutations (come to that, “Dandelion” would have been right at home there too. Perhaps this means Beck’s next album will be more like Mutations and less like Modern Guilt).
Staying on the positive side, Gainsbourg sings in French quite a bit on IRM, and women singing in French will almost always be sexy as hell, not to mention beautiful (I’m suddenly kind of sad that I don’t own any Edith Piaf albums). Sorry, red-staters: like it or not, French (or Freedom, if you’re feeling a little 2003), when spoken well, is a dead sexy language. And Gainsbourg often sings it in a seductive little whisper, which helps brighten the plateau that IRM hits almost immediately.
Which I guess means it’s time to talk about the negative stuff. There isn’t much. In fact, my biggest criticism of the album is going to seem, to say the least, a bit abstruse. But bear with me (or fire up the hateful comments now – it’s free [French?] country). The thing is, I feel like IRM is a bit superficial. Considering its back-story (brain full of blood, remember?), I feel like this album should reach higher and dip lower than it does – that is, I feel like Beck and Gainsbourg could stand to raise the stakes a little (not to the height of My Chemical Melodrama, mind you, but just a bit higher than they are on this record). I don’t know if Gainsbourg’s limited vocal range is partly to blame or not. Maybe it’s the fact that Beck wrote most of these songs, meaning he was writing about what must’ve been a very personal (and existential crisis-inducing) experience for Gainsbourg, who merely sings. Granted, not all these songs are about almost dying – the album would probably be terrible if they were – but the atmosphere of IRM’s 13 tracks is pretty stagnant. I’ve listened to this album literally a hundred times at this point and I feel the same at listen number 100 as I did at listen number 1. Which you may think is great, but for me, it makes me feel like maybe I might as well have never listened to it all. See? I’ll admit my abstrusity (and that I made that word up just now) and I’ll further admit that I like IRM just fine. It’s a fine album just like cotto salami is a fine lunch meat, but I almost never eat it. There are so many things that are “fine” or “merely okay” out there (musically and otherwise), that I don’t have the time or inclination to sift through them all. For some reason, I felt like IRM should be somehow more amazing that it is. It feels safe, which I realize will be an unpopular opinion (and, speaking of those: the only thing I hate more than Portugal. The Man’s The Satanic Satanist is the seemingly endless tide of fuckwit fans that keep coming here to try to insult me over it. Get a life!) but that’s how I feel. It’s a well-known, highly regarded (despite a couple of really mediocre recent albums) musician writing an album for a lovely, enchanting vocalist who happens to have been nearly killed by her own brain. It’s completely accessible pop music and, like I said, there’s nothing wrong with that. But other than some French lyrics (the two years of French I took in high school – and subsequently forgot – tell me that all of the French-language songs on IRM are about publicly removing Mitch McConnell’s testicles), there’s not much to distinguish IRM from the very crowded pack that makes up pop music today. Like a lot of other perfectly “fine” pop, IRM is more safe than fording the L.A. River.
I guess if I were Pitchfork, I could end the review there, give IRM some arbitrary number score that might reflect the fact that I somewhat liked it (they gave it an 8.4, which means they really liked it), and call it a day. But I don’t operate that way. I have run out of things to say about IRM and that’s not a good sign for an album I’ve listened to as much as I’ve listened to this one. But I can’t give it a grade. Grades are stupid and you can tell your teacher I said so. Look: if you like pop music, Beck, and women singing breathily in French (and who doesn’t?), you’ll find something to like here. And, if you’re like me (you’re probably not, you lucky bastard), you’ll find yourself wondering why you don’t like the album as enthusiastically as you feel like you should. And then “La Collectionneuse” will close the album and its simple, elegant beauty will make you think maybe you do like this album a lot. Or maybe that’s just your blood-filled brain talking. You might want to get that looked at.