Drifting under the current of these 13 tracks—a dozen written or co-written by Beck, who also produced—is the sense that, on her second album, Charlotte Gainsbourg—the daughter of legendary French musician, Serge Gainsbourg—is dealing with the ghosts of a recent past. Which is appropriate since the Anglo/French singer/actress had a near fatal cerebral hemorrhage after a water skiing accident in the fall of 2007. Recovered, to a degree, she has crafted a consistently engaging post-everything work, along with the help of Beck, L.A. musical auteur, with a head nod, literally, in some cases, to that accident. Indeed, the title of the album, IRM is the French-language translation of the acronym for the machine, which can scan the brain for irregularities. Well, one will not find any such alterations, or cranial mishaps here, as the overall dreamlike aura is infectious and true.
The proceedings are laden with percussive touches (“Master’s Hand”), also a Beck hallmark, while the title track bustles along with eerie samples from an MRI, erm, IRM machine, and is quite wonderfully tribal. And that feeling of movement and nuance within self-reflection is enhanced by a surreal James Bond film soundtrack vibe (“Le chat du Café des Artistes” triggers the first display of violins ala 007scape), while Gainsbourg also finds herself doing quite well with a mixture of Radiohead and chamber music trimmed down to Bonsai-tree perfection (the warm loveliness of “In the End”), while Beck adds his co-vocals to a catchy hook which combines the Beatles and Tom Waits without sounding like some psycho mash up as the singers ponder “somewhere between what you need and what you know (“Heaven Can Wait”).”
A slow staccato beat with the patient recitation of the travels of who? and her in a surreal tableaux is reminiscent of the days when acoustics and a flute never quite vanished (“Me and Jane Doe” sifting through the dreamy imagery, finding peace nowhere, but can one?) rest well next to the lilting peaks of a gentle wind which almost swallows one whole (Gainsbourg in her element on the heavenly ballad “Vanities,” and its equally pastoral companion piece which follows, “Time of the Assassins), and then, get jangled askew with a stripped-down bit of power chord fuzz bandery (a tight yet edgy “Trick Pony”).
Ahh…but Beck and Gainsbourg aren’t quite done offering surprises as a minimalist bullet mike tune (“Greenwich Mean Time”) rams into lean rockabilly in first gear before welcoming violins out of left field with a bit of brass tossed-sampled in (“Dandelion”), and the percussion and East Indian milieu take over the rhythm to push the singer into a new sense of adventure, neither quite confident, nor afraid; somehow in between (“Voyage”) as she bends towards something new on “a journey to the end of the night.”
With Beck’s stamp on all of the tracks, the musician serves as either Gainsbourg’s poignant muse, or provocative producer. Perhaps, both. As the tapestry of their mutual vision becomes clear, and then drifts away like so many lost epiphanies, IRM serves as another reminder that sometimes the peaks in life are quiet, transitory moments which help shape the tangled corners of our past, before the movement forward, always forward. And for Gainsbourg, recently recovered from a near permanent death experience, that is most fortunate as this album is alive with the sound of life itself.