I was fortunate to receive an advance copy of Jane Birkin’s latest effort, Fictions, and I must say after a few listens I’m more impressed than I thought I would be. The legendary “Mother of all Babes” has been amazingly prolific recently and it seems just about every young artist is clamoring to work with her (who wouldn’t be?) and the results, as evidenced by the well-intentioned, but murky and disjointed recent French-language effort, Rendez-Vous, have been hit-or-miss.
Fictions is also a collection of collaborations (The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon, Feist cohort Gonzales, and Beth Gibbons of Portishead, among many) and indeed the majority of the album consists of cover versions (and I’m including the Rufus Wainwright contribution which owes its hook to the Kink’s “Waterloo Sunset”); the material, however, is well-chosen and fits in marvelously with the theme of the album.
Birkin receives no writing credit on Fictions but the smartly-curated material does a fine job of celebrating her life journey. That the story is mostly spun in her native English and contains no Serge Gainsbourg compositions (which is quite liberating in the much celebrated anniversaire of his passing) and with well-placed musical and lyrical allusions to her upbringing across the Channel - before Blow-Up changed her life - signifies that Birkin, if not already, has well moved on from her seminal role as erotic ingénue and muse, making a hard-earned and respectable pilgrim's progress to emerge on her own as a vital artist and is acknowledging her roots. It must be noted, however, that the inclusion of her interpretation of Ravel’s Image Fantôme (Pavane Pour Une Enfante Défunte) is quite telling.
Jane B’s idiosyncratic (and frankly an acquired taste) vocal chops are in fine firm – methinks the Arabesque tour gave her quite the workout – and she amazingly elevates tunes that would be cringe-worthy if handled with lesser taste and restraint, such as Kate Bush’s “Mother stands For Comfort.” Her informed choice of Tom Waits’s “Alice” works well in context of the through the Looking Glass and Wonderland aspects of her experiences and she does manage to pull off a credible, if not as inspired as Cassandra Wilson’s reading, jazz version of Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon.” Of course the album veers on preciousness and self-indulgence – but the Grande Dame has earned it and can pull it off.
Fictions reminds me a bit of Nancy Sinatra’s star-studded gang bang latest a bit – that Johnny Marr’s jangling guitar makes its presence on Fictions echoes Morrissey’s association with Boots – but I think Jane Birkin’s album works better as a fully-realised project and a more cohesive exercise in story-telling. Jane B. - model, actress, muse, mother, songbird, keeper of the flame, tireless humanitarian - sans-doubt a life worth celebrating and certainly an album worth bagging!
(words and music by Rufus Wainwright except for the obvious Kinks homage)
(words and music by the Magic Numbers)
(words and music by The Divine Comedy)