tremble clef

Friday, September 22, 2006

Bertine Zetlitz, "I'll Be Fine" (2006)

There is a pretty hysterical video clip floating around on YouTube of our favorite female popstar, Bertine Zetlitz, appearing on a Norwegian sketch comedy show called Team Antonsen. In it, one member of the comedy team -- Kristopher Schau, who was once voted Norway's sexiest man by Elle, and is, I would say, hot in the way Johnny Knoxville is, appropriately enough -- interviews Bertine, behind his desk...without any pants on. Meanwhile, two of his esteemed colleagues, dressed in lab coats, creep under the table and do unseen and unspeakable things to his nether regions in order to distract him, utilizing various props: beginning with some latex gloves, progressing to an exfoliating piece of masking tape, and escalating to a couple of hyperactive live animals. But don't just take my word for it:



Bertine probably didn't design the skit, and her role in it is mostly to keep a straight face -- which she does with aplomb (the faux-nonchalant look she mimes as the gerbil scampers across her field of vision at the 3:15 mark is priceless). Nevertheless, it's tempting, and easy, to see the comedy bit as perfectly in keeping with Bertine's aesthetic.

Most obviously, it reminds us of how Bertine has always been game for weirdness. You see this in her striking photos: she's a stunningly pretty woman, but has never hesitated to bug her eyes out or assume harsh, spooky, psychotic looks. It's everywhere in her lyrics, through which she has developed a persona as a fetchingly icy and slightly unhinged femme fatale. On the opening three tracks of 2003's Sweet Injections, she declares in quick succession that she will torture you "all for fun" and "make you wish you had a gun," because she's "the sickest girl you'll ever find" and a "twisted little star." (Or even more bluntly and delightfully, on 2000's "Certain": "Boy, I'll poke you in the eye.") Secondly: just as the interview's humor depends on the discrepancy between what's happening on the surface, and what's going on beneath it, Bertine's music similarly plumbs such -- in particular, psychosexual -- depths. Finally, even Bertine's peripheral role in the skit seems apt: although in many of her songs Bertine assumes a persona (it is a role), she also switches in and out of different ones, and sometimes is not so much a participant in the weirdness, but on some level only sitting back and watching it unfold, and acting more like a kind of interested observer and commentator.

This past Monday, Bertine released, in her native Norway, her fifth album My Italian Greyhound. And: it's a damn fine piece of work. I'm not sure it quite matches the heights of her previous record, 2004's Rollerskating -- but those heights are nothing if not lofty, seeing as how Rollerskating is, in my book, one of the finest records of, say, the last ten years. Although Greyhound is again produced by Fred Ball (aka Pleasure), it opts not for the shiny, sharp, and angular electro sounds of its predecessor. Instead, it's less futuristic, less machine-like: the synths they've used sound more like old-time Moogs, the beats less taut and spring-loaded. One result of this is that the new album lacks, much to my regret, the frosty electronic ballads -- like "Slowly" from Sweet Injections, or Rollerskating's "Broken" -- that derive their power from conjoining chilly sonics and deeply emotional lyrics (as sung by Bertine with tremulous fragility). Indeed, the lyrics of Greyhound are, on the whole, comparatively starker and sparse, and may even strike some as bordering on the banal and unspecific. And at under 40 minutes, the long player is way too short.

But if those are your biggest problems, you're in great shape. The album is full of thundering pop tracks: the two singles, "500" and "Midnight" (which, as others have noted, sits on a naggingly catchy pizzicato bass that recalls the shuffle beat from "Billie Jean," and the strings from "Papa Don't Preach" and "Here Comes The Rain Again" all at once) are fabulous enough, but "Sleep Through The Storm" (featuring a piano riff that's a bit "...Baby One More Time"), and "Obsession" (in which Bertine sings in a rapidfire way that would put rappers to shame, over, this time round, something like the bassline from "Billie Jean") would make equally amazing singles. But these thundering pop tracks are also very simple, as the last single from Rollerskating, "Ah-ah," portended. Many of the new tracks are built around one or two short melody lines, but within them Bertine introduces vocal variations -- she has always been tremendous at double-tracking her vocals, and on this album this continues to be the case -- while Fred Ball's production works to layer the instrumentation with richer and richer effects.

Greyhound is therefore a collection of really fabulous pop tracks, but it may also be more than that. The first lines we hear from the new album, on the track "Draggin' Me Down," go: "I've got something stashed behind the shed/Maybe you would like to see the stuff that she misread/Yeah, you know the nights you woke and wished that you were dead/Maybe you would like to come and see behind the shed." The album therefore announces, from the get-go, its continuing interest in what lies beneath and behind -- and issues an invitation to us to come unearth it with her.

Specifically, Bertine's interest seems focused on one theme, the one that gives track three its title, but permeates all the others: obsession. I can't say with certainty that Greyhound is a full-on concept album, but its ten songs do appear to be thematically linked. Thus, phrases, sentences, and characters are repeated and recur over different songs. There are enough references to slipping, falling, drowning to make Virginia Woolf jealous. The phrase "get what you deserve," for instance, migrates from being a line in "500," to being the title of track four. There's a "Suzy" in track one (although there she is a dog), and another, or the same one, in "Sleep Through The Storm"; and though it's a more generic moniker, there's also someone Bertine calls "baby girl" in both "Draggin' Me Down" and "I'll Be Fine." Since those are the first and last tracks, it suggests that Greyhound follows Bertine's relationship with this one person over the ten songs.

Not only do all ten songs appear interlinked, but they may also form a rough narrative, in which an obsession is traced and detailed. If so, the singer's obsession would begin and reach its climax in the first three numbers ("Draggin' Me Down," "500," "Obsession"); thereafter, rejection occurs and disillusionment sets in ("Get What You Deserve," "This Time"), leading perhaps to some stalkerish feelings of vindictivenss ("Midnight," in which she watches and waits for someone, likely that beloved, to slip and fall). Befitting this theme, in which Bertine desires merging herself with her intended, over these first six songs, pronouns flit from place to place. On track one, the object of Bertine's obsession is a third person to her, but becomes someone she addresses directly ("you") in the next three tracks. On track five, "This Time," however, the narrator moves between a direct address ("you were blaming me") and some sort of inclusive pronoun ("the higher we climb, the further we fall"). What's more, if it weren't already clear from what I've been saying, the object of obsession is, quite explicitly, another woman (an impression confirmed by the video for "500"). And she may be a quite specific kind of woman. Although what is thematized by Greyhound is primarily and generally sexual obsession, at a more meta-level, the record may (additionally or simultaneously) document a developing relationship between a singer and her fan. In "500," after all, there are repeated references to fanclubs and autographs. But since the lines between stalker/stalkee aren't very clear, which role Bertine plays is left open: she may be imagining herself as a fan who follows another singer, vice versa, or herself a star who is envious of another, more successful, star.

If the first six songs set up that premise, what happens after "Midnight," however, is a bit unclear. Track seven, the ska-y "This Moment," begins by announcing, "She is pretty; you adore her," so it would seem that another player, a man, has entered the psychosexual drama. He seems torn between Bertine and the other woman: "though you like my heavy breathing/I can never be her." But of course that could be taking place in Bertine's head, as she tries a new way to possess the object of her obsesson by recasting the two of them as rivals. And yet, to push further, it is additionally possible that the rejection Bertine has suffered has caused some sort of dissociative state in her -- if so, the final trio of songs, in which Bertine says that "she will never let you go," and seems suspiciously confident that her beloved will stay with her through the storm, may just be delusion.

But we are going further and further down an overly speculative path here, so let's return to the more basic point: namely, Greyhound presents some sort of song cycle about obsession, the outlines of which are deceptively and uncomfortably blurry, not least because the gender roles are so unusual. The drama that the songs together sketch out, as a final note, are echoed on the level of songcraft. If the blurring of identities is the theme of the album, than it is also its modus operandi. I've already pointed out that "500" makes no clear distinction between chorus and verse, and several other songs on the record, such as "Midnight," are likewise murky on this point. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this reflects to some degree the thematic aspects of the album, where the lines between you/I, he/she, self/other all seem remarkably porous.

Enough. Here is the closing track of the album, "I'll Be Fine," which I think may be, well, the finest moment on an album full of them. It's a mid-tempo song, set to an elastic bass and beat, that's oddly affecting, partly because it's almost a gospel number. This feel comes, most prominently, from the organ that rumbles ominously underneath, and then is the last thing we hear of the album. Near the end of the track, a chorus of almost-choral voices also rise. But on the chorus, we also get a squelchy guitar, as if hinting at some underlying unease, which, when the middle eight comes around, gets to freaks out some. And, as conclusion to the psychosexual drama that may or may not have unfolded over the previous nine songs, "I'll Be Fine" is a admirably suitable -- because discomforting -- one. By this point, Bertine's beloved ("baby girl") may have ended up with the man. So now, Bertine imagines -- or maybe it is really the case -- that this beloved begins to have paranoid fantasies about the man she's ended up with. There's no rest for the wicked. "Lately," Bertine tells us about "baby girl," whom she began the song cycle by stalking, "you've been sleeping by the door," wondering why her man is only "home every other night." "These suspicions gnawing on your mind/Baby girl you're never been this blind." On the chorus, there is no longer any way to tell who's speaking to whom; indeed, there are literally a few Bertines singing, harmonizing: "Hold me like you'll never let me go/Let's pretend this feeling doesn't show." Spoken by baby girl to her man? By Bertine to baby girl? At this point, these may be one and the same, and the moment is, in the end, simultaneously bone-chilling and uplifting. "Funny how it hurts when we collide/I will be fine." As if.

5 Comments:

  • I will try to get the Bertine CDs for the shop. Thanks for introducing me to her, I love this deranged girl.
    I will let you know my take on the fan/star obsession subplot, since i am an expert on that topic, n'est ce pas?

    By Anonymous Arnault, at 12:59 PM  

  • Would you happen to really really want to post "This Time" too?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:52 AM  

  • I am not even going to attempt to review this CD now that you have done it! I'll be eager to see what you whip up for Stylus...

    By Blogger xolondon, at 8:45 AM  

  • Cheater. I haven't forgotten that you promised more detailed reviews of Bertine and Charlotte "Sort Of Boring" Gainsbourg. WHERE ARE THEY?!

    By Blogger Brittle, at 4:52 PM  

  • lol Will do the Char for you if I can think of something to say. I love that CD beeyotch!

    By Blogger xolondon, at 7:28 PM  

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