The first striking aspect about Serge Gainsbourg’s notoriously unheralded second album is the cover. Here sits a shockingly young and fresh-faced Serge, rocking a suit right out of an early Godard flick, fixing the camera with one of the coldest world-challenging glares ever mustered for a front sleeve. On a table in front of him rests a gun and a bouquet of roses. “Flowers for my fans,” Serge said at the time. “And gunpowder for my critics.”
The fact that Serge had far more critics than fans at this point may explain why he appears to be leaning toward the pistol. This record and his superb debut of less than a year previous each sold roughly 1,500 copies. Serge was still smoking and boozing his way through nights as a piano man in various Pigalle dives. The little press he did receive mostly focused on his gargoyle looks or the horrors of his non-traditional singing voice or his distinctive brand of macabre, sexists lyrics, glossing over or missing completely his classicist romantic streak, stunning modernist wordplay, and clear-eyed songwriting prowess.
If failure is something that bothered Serge, he sure didn’t let it show on N° 2. Recorded during the same sessions as Du chant à la une! with Alan Goraguer and his orchestra, the record kicks off with one of Serge’s most strutting and defiant tracks. “Le Claqueur de Doigts” is the first instance of Gainsbourg using the mangled franglais that would later become one of his many trademarks, muttering something about a “jukebox” as a minimalist accompaniment of insistent finger snaps keeps him afloat. Simultaneously laid back and driving, withdrawn and menacing, fully awake but dead to the world, no Serge mixtape is complete without “Le Claqueur de Doigts”.
For fans of the beat-happy Gainsbourg percussions that came four records after this one, if you want to hear an early example of Serge toying around that style with then check out “La Nuit d’Octobre” with its vaguely African rhythmic patterns, jaunty feel, and sudden, ear slitting horn blasts that seem to come in out of nowhere. The song steals its lyrics from one of Musset’s worst poems, an aspect that suits this project perfectly, and setting them against a vaguely Caribbean rhythm was a bold and strange choice indeed. It’s a jarring jump from the first track to this, which is suiting for what is easily Serge’s most scattershot record. This isn’t to say that N° 2 is a poor record by any means, and in many ways the off-kilter song structure makes for a disorienting and fascinating listen. Gainsbourg appears to be toying with random ideas here, tossing off perfectly executed sidesteps as if carelessly flicking the ashes of a Gitane on your couch. Check out “Jeunes Femmes et Vieux Messieurs”, with its Eastern European gypsy bounce, where Serge sounds like he’s having a lot of fun and spends much of the last verse trying not to crack up or the incredible “Mambo Miam Miam” which would have been a major hit for Pupi Campo but is treated as nothing more than a surreal genre exercise by a smirking Serge.
It is this spirit of late night fun that drives the record. You can imagine the smoky studio, the red light glaring, the orchestra passing a bottle, with Serge and Alan driving the proceedings from one absurd experiment to the next. Songs like “L’Anthracite” and “L’Amour à la Papa” possess a one-take feel that proves quite refreshing for anyone used to the heavily labored masterworks of the Master’s later career. Here we have direct evidence of a distinctly punk attitude and we weren’t even into the 60s yet. There is zero possibility of commercial success here, no songs that would work on soundtracks or be covered by other artists. Gainsbourg and Goraguer really had a lot of nerve turning this one in to Phillips, and the fact that those suckers actually put it out must have been hilarious to the devilish (and effortlessly stylish) duo.
For those who love the smoky jazz vibe of early Gainsbourg, there is much to love here. “Adieu Créature” floats softly on 3AM horns and a dejected-sounding Gainsbourg effortlessly hits those weary notes like the bistro piano man he was at that point. Then there’s “Indifférente”, one of the top 30 coolest songs in his catalog, loping along on ennui fumes and driven by snare rim shots straight from the void.
If you can deal with its uneven feel and tossed-off vibe, there is much to enjoy about Serge’s second foray into the long player world, including two stone-cold classics and a number of ridiculously entertaining sidesteps that managed to piss off a lot of people at his record company, a handful of critics, and whatever listeners accidentally stumbled across it. N° 2 is by far the least successful album in his catalog, both critically and commercially, and it’s a total blast.
Enjoy Serge’s bouquet or taste his gun. The choice is yours.