CHARLOTTE GAINSBOURG: 5:55I have known that feeling too many times; usually I am too preoccupied with getting ready to get out of bed, but when I don’t – well, it has struck me; it doesn’t strike me now, because everything has changed and I am no longer alone – but those endless ends of the night, where you blink yourself into bleary consciousness “adrift upon the night/And miles away from land.” There have been many times when I have laid there, utterly lost, directionless, crippled by the crutch of unresolved memory and guilt (“Soon the morning will arrive/Can I begin another day/Whilst this old day is still alive/Refusing to be put away?”). “I sacrifice myself again and again and again…” and again and again (as on Escalator), and you can hear her trying to bite her tongue off to stop these thoughts from flooding her blood.Oh yes, I know those feelings which Charlotte Gainsbourg feels, or which Jarvis Cocker’s words articulate; so 5:55 needs to be played at that time of day, or night, preferably in the gathering autumn such as we now approach. It is essentially the new Air album, with Gainsbourg on vocals and Cocker and Neil Hannon on words, and if this is already getting too 1995 then it’s the stunted, fearful quietude of the second Tindersticks album, though Air are very naturally more expansive. They make the kind of elegantly melancholic and slow-burning music which these nascent feelings of despair deserve; really they have made the same album several times over, but as with Boards of Canada that is the cynosure of their charm – there are certain colours of my soul which they know how to touch, and why they need to be touched, and how to help make them blossom and bloom, even when their atomised enchantment seems to want to deny continuation of life in every other respect.The music on 5:55 dreams to fit Charlotte’s dreams of emotion; she mostly sings to and in herself, but the contours and folds of Air’s genius serve to embrace her, to cushion her despair, maybe even to elevate her, help her to liberate what exactly she feels. Indecisive isn’t the same thing as vulnerable; fear isn’t interchangeable with surrender. The music stays relatively quiet throughout, but so full, so rightly lush, so wonderfully patient; “Little Monsters” is a warier variant on “Playground Love” with cyclical piano framing Gainsbourg’s dread-filled whispers (“Making out that she knows the rules/A sincere imposter”) and a spine-freezing glockenspiel refrain (“Can’t you see that we’re only playing?”). She is not emotionless; under the serene cover she is frantically scrabbling to retrace and reclaim emotions – the seductively sinister “AF607105” finds her frozen, numb on the flight with that number, feeling nothing, forgetting everything (“I love you/I miss you/I cannot see your face”) and only finding salvation as the ‘plane crashes to its inevitable doom; she audibly becomes animated and even excited as she intones “The cabin is burning/I smile and feel complete” – Melody Nelson’s story, told from her own perspective. “Tel Que Tu Es” barely exists but for piano and whisper (the title translates as “Come As You Are” and it’s not a Nirvana cover). “Beauty Mark” is a remarkable pledge of clenched sobs (“This hidden place/This private part/The secret door into my heart/I’ll keep it for you”); she sighs the word “mark” – as with all of her vocals, in immaculate Birkin-perfect Home Counties English – as if she’s bringing the whole planet crashing down with her, or maybe on her.It doesn’t all work – the contrived cinequotes of “Jamais” remind us of Cocker at his laziest (the miracle of this album’s best work is that you forget that Cocker is involved), and the faux-Serge gestures of “The Songs That We Sing” seem unduly facile – but the record climaxes with the remarkable “Everything I Cannot See,” where her voice finally breaks free of restraint in the song’s astonishing downward-cascading rapid piano chorus (“You’re my life you’re my hope you’re the chain you’re the rope you’re my God you’re my hell you’re the sky you’re myself you’re the reason I’m living you’re all that I discover,” which takes Charlotte fractionally less time to sing – ecstatically - than it did me to type). It’s not quite clear to whom, or what, the song is addressed; whoever or whatever it is, she loves them, but she has to leave. Yet this leaving comes with its own inbuilt escape hatch, namely: “If I leave, will you follow, can I put my faith in you?” The line “But this island life/Just had to end” suggests that it’s perhaps not a lover she’s asking to decide, but France, her family’s legacy, perhaps the past in general. And eventually she breaks away, but gladly the Other breaks in tandem with her (“So let’s face it together/Now this storm is finally through,” hot on the heels of the remarkable imagery “the stars hang like a noose”). “You’re the miles left to go you are everything I ever wanted and you are my lover.”Finally, the circle completes with “Morning Song” – it has all been a dream (“Last night I saw a ghost/He seemed familiar to me”) and nothing has really been resolved (“But to get to the morning, first you have to get through the night”). Still, she will persist, and survive, and prosper, away from ghosts, towards the warmer reality of the present and the future, just as I am doing; if I’d written “Everything I Cannot See” I would have interpreted it as having the courage to walk away from the memory of Laura towards the reality of you, and that is how I pretty much interpret it, and that chorus I imagine singing to you, without precondition, with love, only with utter love and devotion. Maybe that’s why I love 5:55 so much, since it reminds me of how far we’ve truly travelled; it now encapsulates a past for me, and sums up what needed to be summed up, and reminds me that I’m more alive now than I have ever been, so beautifully and gently and tenderly.
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