In 1988, filmmaker Agnès Varda created a lovely, freewheeling docudrama called Jane B. par Agnès V. in honor of friend and collaborator Jane Birkin’s 40th birthday. There’s a moment in the film where Varda compares Birkin’s desire to be a “famous nobody” to the Unknown Woman of the Seine. “I wonder if the only true portrait is the death mask,” she says, as the L’Inconnue appears onscreen and Birkin’s own closed-eyed visage fades into view in its place. “A frontal view of a motionless face. That’s all that remains of anyone—a motionless face.” It’s a striking illustration—one of several in Jane B.—of Birkin’s anxiety towards approaching mortality.
Now, the Anglo-Francophone icon is 74 years old—closer to that mortality than ever before—and has had death touch her life in many more ways. She has lost two romantic partners (composers John Barry and Serge Gainsbourg) as well as daughter Kate Barry, who passed away in 2013 after falling from the window of her Paris apartment. Meanwhile, she’s announced her retirement from acting while also continued to record and tour, building on the musical legacy she established alongside Gainsbourg.
Birkin grapples with these losses—as well as the intricacies of her image and self—on the stunning Oh! Pardon tu dormais… (Translation: Oh! Sorry you were sleeping…) Aptly touted in the press as Birkin’s most personal musical opus to date, the album finds her working largely with her own material for the first time. With help from producer Etienne Daho, she retains (albeit with some modern studio polish) the lush orchestral drama of classic Gainsbourg joints like 1971’s Histoire de Melody Nelson, wherein she played Serge’s titular teenage paramour. Make no mistake, though: Pardon is Jane’s record.
The opening title track, its lyrics lifted almost verbatim from Birkin’s scalding stage dramedy of the same name, takes the familiar form of a duet, Daho stepping in for the late Serge. The two dialogue as the play’s bitterly estranged couple, with Birkin the only party who seems interested in resurrecting the dead romance. “I was yelling at you,” she laments, “because you came home/Without even saying goodnight to me/Even for a dog we have gestures.” The track makes for a shining example of Birkin’s chameleonic knack for shifting between modes of expression—from stage to recording studio. It also introduces us to Pardon’s recurring motif of death, both figurative and literal—for what is lost love if not a silent living death in itself?
From top to bottom, Pardon showcases the work of an accomplished, assured artiste. No matter how grand the arrangements grow, Birkin’s signature breathy vocals—now tinged with a slight quaver—never lose their startling intimacy. All the better, it seems, to make her audience experience firsthand her mourning of her departed Kate. “Ces murs épais” details a visit to Kate’s final resting place—over shuffling drums and a mournful horn the mother bemoans the fact she can only commune with her child via the flowers she lays on her grave: “Under my footsteps, six feet underground/Kisses of brambles and ivy/Embraced passenger, lonely me/As I hate them, these thick walls of life.”
On “Cigarettes,” she ponders whether Kate’s fall was accidental or intentional: “My daughter got fucked up/And we found her on the ground/Did she, in fact, open the window/To drive away the smoke?/Cigarettes.” In anyone else’s hands, the song’s jaunty, almost clownish piano accompaniment would sound ludicrously out of place (as would the honking cabaret sax and clarinets on “Telle est ma maladie…”). Here, it simply proves the French can make even the saddest songs sound dreamy and romantic, and vice versa.
Indeed, Birkin has become so synonymous with France that it’s almost jarring to hear her sing in English. Nonetheless, the two tracks on Pardon recorded in her native tongue only further cement the record as her own. They form a diptych of ethereal gothic fairy tales wherein she strives to make sense of her seemingly senseless loss. On the atmospheric “Ghosts,” she envisions the spirits of her “grandpa, grandma, mother, father/Daughter, nephew, cats, husbands, and friends” visiting her in her sleep. The number, while heartfelt and tragic, is not without a subtle sense of dark humor (i.e., shouting out dead pets alongside humans) and the comforting idea that those we lose, in a way, never truly leave us. It’s less an exorcism of a soul’s demons than a reclamation of those demons of her own—acceptance without resignation.
But the death of a loved one holds no easy answers, as she finds on wrenching closer “Catch Me If You Can.” A mad dash for clues into Kate’s psyche (a note attached to her diary, Was happy as Ulysses between his parents) sparks allusions to Homer’s Odyssey. Birkin’s whispery voice descends into a sad maelstrom of strings like Persephone into Hades. “Gods, gods!” Could her daughter’s intense sadness have sprung from her parents’ divorce when she was an infant? “Will you protect me/From the fear of growing old?” Ultimately, there’s nothing to do but shrug (“Who knows?”) and continue to wonder.
On top of all this extraordinary pathos, Pardon is also just a really good album. Daho’s breathlessly cool production shines, frequently reaching the same heights of sonic daring that permeated David Bowie’s latter-day work. Birkin’s impressive songwriting chops are on full display—she’s an amazing storyteller who can weave even the smallest details into bursts of impressionistic tone poetry. For instance, the opening lines of hip spoken-word jam “Je voulais être…”: “The grass had that vague smell of piss, sweet earth and rotten, quite familiar/You remember it?/The walls shone like a public toilet/Paris opened before us like a jewelry chest.”
Much like Jane B. par Agnés V., Pardon is a beautiful, haunting, unforgettable thing—one of multiple standouts in a long, fruitful artistic career. Both works paint unique portraits of a woman who, after decades of being defined by her relationships to others, is finally ready to tell her own story.