Singing about human complexity, channeling her past with Serge Gainsbourg, and grappling with the death of her daughter, the iconic singer-songwriter sounds battle-scarred but never defeated.
Death stalks Oh! Pardon tu dormais…, the 14th studio album from Francophile English singer Jane Birkin. In 2013, Birkin’s daughter Kate Barry died after falling from the window of her Paris flat, and on Oh! Pardon tu dormais... Birkin directly tackles the subject in her music for the first time. It is an album, she told Vogue recently, grounded in a distinctly unsentimental idea of what makes people human: “all their defects and their cowardliness and their guilt and their complexity.”
Barry isn’t the only phantom here. Serge Gainsbourg, Birkin’s onetime romantic partner and eternal creative inspiration, haunts the record’s classically elegant arrangements, and there is a sense, on songs like “Catch Me if You Can” and “Ghosts,” of Birkin perhaps looking ahead to the end of her own life in lyrics weighed down by absence and loss. “Catch me if you can, my love/I’m almost gone from view,” Birkin sings on “Catch Me if You Can,” the devastating album closer.
The results are an emotional tour de force from an artist who has never gotten her musical due outside of France. (This album, in fact, marks the first time she has written songs in English.) Birkin’s name will forever be linked to the songs Gainsbourg composed for her in the three decades after they met, leaving her better known as an interpreter than a songwriter in her own right. But the lyrics on a song like “Cigarettes,” which addresses her daughter’s death to the tune of a haunting cabaret waltz, are both raw and poetic. You can feel the aching, angry disbelief of a grieving mother in lines like “Ma fillette s’est balancée/Sur le pavé on l’a retrouvée” ("My little girl swayed/On the pavement we found her”). It is a song of deadening sorrow.
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