Serge Gainsbourg, “Melody’s Waltz” (1971), “The Ballad of Melody Nelson” (1971); Jane Birkin, “Melody’s Waltz” (2002)

The apex of Serge Gainsbourg’s discography is widely recognized to be Melody Nelson (1971), a short, 28-minute narrative album that tells the Lolita-esque story of a short-lived and tragic relationship between a 15-year old English gamine and an older French man. Serge sings the male part and his then-wife Jane Birkin sang the part of Melody Nelson. The most wonderful thing to come out of this album was the amazingly weird and outstandingly 70s 28-minute short film/very long music video, directed by Jean-Christophe Avery (it’s on YouTube: The Story of Melody Nelson!) If you want to know more about the album, there’s a nice review of it on PopMatters.

Anyway, for the most part, whenever Serge made an album with a girlfriend or wife, it was the most awkward thing ever because they were not very good singers. I really struggle to listen to anything he made with Brigitte Bardot (plus the fact that she’s a crazy-ass bigot these days). It makes me want to stab my ears. When she was first starting out singing with Serge, she did this weak, breathy, pitchy thing with her voice that is like nails on the chalkboard to me (see: their most [in]famous duet, I Love You… Me Neither). Over the years she’s gotten less annoying. All this to say, the cover she does of “Melody’s Waltz” on her album Arabesque is absolutely top-notch and stunning. How do you turn a minute-and-a-half song into a six-minute song? You completely re-contextualize it. I’m not really a music critic, but I’ll quote one, who can explain what Birkin does with Gainsbourg in her album:

Arabesque, which is finally available in America, is singer and actress Birkin’s tribute to the music of the late Serge Gainsbourg, her mentor, late (and ex) husband, and producer. Recorded in March 2002 at the Olympia Theater in Paris, Arabesque puts the music of Gainsbourg, one of France’s most unlikely and beloved national heroes, into an altogether different context: North African folk music as it meets new age exotica. And does it ever work. With a quintet of Arabic musicians backing her, Birkin uses her austere French to give new utterance and meaning to Gainsbourg’s tunes […]. “Valse de Melody” (Melody’s Waltz) is full of arid and prayerful intonations by Memouen before Birkin enters to sing backup on this gorgeous song of desolation and mourning. Birkin’s radical reworking of these songs would no doubt have pleased Gainsbourg, because she infuses them with the soul of an innocent who longs to be a rake, and one who understands implicitly their worth as both pop songs and works of erotic and necessary poetry. (Thom Jurek’s review on AllMusic)

Melody’s Waltz (Gainsbourg’s version): YouTube
Melody’s Waltz (Jane Birkin cover, 2002): YouTube

Sunshine is rare
And so is happiness
Love goes astray
Your whole life

Sunshine is rare
And so is happiness
But everything changes
In Melody’s arms

The ramparts
Of the labyrinth
Half-open to
Infinity

The Ballad of Melody Nelson: YouTube

This is the story
Of Melody Nelson–
I was the only person
To ever take her into my arms.
That may surprise you,
But it’s true.

She had enough love to go around,
Poor Melody Nelson.
Yeah, she had a ton of it.
But her days were numbered.
Fourteen autumns
And fifteen summers.

She was a little animal,
Melody Nelson,
An adorable tomboy.
So deliciously childish,
I knew her body for only a moment.

Oh! My melody,
My Melody Nelson,
Darling little bitch,
You were the condition
Sine qua non
Of my sanity.

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