Even with the disconnect, a Charlotte Gainsbourg live show is a rare thing to treasure
Twenty minutes until Charlotte Gainsbourg takes the stage at Village Underground and people are spilling out of the doors. Inside, a sea of faces from all walks of life jockey for position, eagerly stepping on neighbours’ toes to frantically reserve the best space for themselves. Pitch up late and you’ll be caught in the bottleneck looking at a wall for the evening, albeit a rather pleasantly constructed one.
Gainsbourg has long been a surname recalling the musical establishment, but it wasn’t until the release of her third album at the end of last year that everything aligned. ‘Rest’ was an evocative collection of songs about grief and family trauma, combining intricate melodies and multilingual wordplay; finally, a critically-acclaimed record worthy of the family name – a relief for the singer and actor, I’m sure, whose anxiety in music comes from the self-imposed pressure of her father’s legacy and her love for him. It’s why she plays live as frequently as Kate Bush, and why so many people are looking at a wall right now, happy to just listen.
Gainsbourg’s sudden popularity seems to take her a little by surprise all the same, tiptoeing meekly out to sit at a keyboard for the majority of the set. The understated performance is offset by luminescent squares constructed around her, as a blend of strobe and spotlight alternates between the up-tempo and downbeat. It all makes perfect sense. Where you could fairly criticise Gainsbourg’s studio recordings for being self-consciously self-contained, the live set gives the band a chance for a little more experimentation.
‘Deadly Valentine’ is the night’s standout. The already funk-heavy bassline is accentuated with a three-minute IDM interlude that feels like Caribou, Kylie Minogue and LCD Soundsystem playing with Daft Punk, at times more reminiscent of the latterly released, and brilliant, Soulwax remix. ‘I’m A Lie’, too, is transformed from fairground pop to powerful breakbeat.
But there’s a disconnect. A polite applause meets her most exciting and textured intermissions, while the melodic but occasionally deadbeat moments seem to be savoured the most. Her homage to Sylvia Plath is mostly forgettable in ‘Sylvia Says’, while ‘Rest’ – a beautiful and complex eulogy to her half-sister on record – is swallowed up by the room and barely recognisable until the devastating spoken word segment. A moment of poignancy is brushed over.
It’s strange; you wouldn’t think the same crowd offering a very pleasant applause to end the hour-long set was the same that were nervously murmuring between themselves when Gainsbourg rhymed “douchebag” with “scumbag”, covering Kanye’s ‘Runaway’ minutes earlier.
Charlotte Gainsbourg at Village Underground, London. 29 March 2018