It’s thanks to Mick Harvey’s two mid-90s albums of Serge Gainsbourg covers that many English speakers understand the lyrical brilliance behind Gainsbourg’s infectious music. In lesser hands, the marriage of humour and existentialist angst may have been lost – and the music altogether crapper. 20 years after Intoxicated Man and Pink Elephants, Harvey returns to the barrel, quaffing freely in order to bring some of Gainsbourg’s lesser-known cuts to life.
This 12-song set (pared from 19) was recorded in Australia and Berlin. String charts were once again handled by Bertrand Burgalat. The chronological range of the material is vast. Thunderous opener "The Man with the Cabbage Head" is the title track from a 1976 concept album about a man so obsessed with a dancer, he murders her and ends up in an asylum.
In 1995, at the pinnacle of his success as Nick Cave’s right-hand man, multi-instrumentalist Mick Harvey embarked on the most quixotic of solo projects. He set about translating the songs of the dissolute, recently deceased French songwriter Serge Gainsbourg into English, resulting in two albums in just over two years: Intoxicated Man and Pink Elephants. For the uninitiated, some context is necessary.
Throughout his four-decade career, Mick Harvey has served as rock’s most reliable sidekick. For much of that time, he was the set designer who built the pedestal upon which Nick Cave has pranced and prowled; currently, he’s okay with being the second-most famous Harvey onstage. Even as a solo artist, he’s been most himself when singing the songs of others.
Even though erstwhile Bad Seed and semi-regular PJ Harvey collaborator Mick Harvey has been no slouch as a solo songwriter, it’s certainly contestable that the highest watermarks trading under his own name are still 1995’s Intoxicated Man and 1997’s Pink Elephants – two albums translating and reinterpreting material from the vast Serge Gainsbourg catalogue for the English-speaking world. With both said LPs anthologised as one deluxe set in 2014, alongside compelling tie-in live shows in Australia and Europe, Harvey reignited his penchant for the Serge songbook enough to be persuaded to add more recordings to the series, nearly twenty years on. Noticeably different in its construction and track-selection approach, Delirium Tremens may not have quite the same feel and importance as its two much-loved predecessors but it’s certainly no pale afterthought cash-in job either.
Mick Harvey isn’t finished with Serge Gainsbourg yet. The Australian musician wrestled with the Frenchman’s back catalogue for the first time in 1995 with Intoxicated Man, and then again in 1997 with Pink Elephants. Now here he is with the third volume, Delirium Tremens (better known as the DTs, or alcoholic shakes), and we’re told to expect a fourth come the end of the year, which, one assumes, will continue the now rich tradition of bibulous nomenclature.