Off the Charts

Marianne Faithfull

In the 1960s, British storyteller-in-song Marianne Faithfull fascinated fans as much for her affair with Mick Jagger as for rather mystical voice and persona. As she heads toward her 72nd birthday, she can lay claim to an utterly individual career; she doesn’t seem to have cared a rat’s rear end who or how many people understood her art. Faithfull, indeed – faithful to her own sound and vision.

Take a leap back in time to 1965, when she was first making a name for herself. Faithfull had her biggest successes with covers of other artists’ songs. Her hits of this sort included Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday.” But for our purposes, what matters is the B-side of that single, a song by Faithfull herself called “Oh, Look Around You.”

Her voice has a deceptive delicacy, considering the power and darkness she would reveal in her later work (think of her devastating cover of John Lennon’s “Broken English” in 1979). The melody is deceptive, too – sure, it’s in a mournful minor key, but this gentle, folklike waltz doesn’t prepare you for that time when you finally stop swaying along and truly listen to the lyrics. It’s the kind of conversational poem that Schubert and Mahler had a taste for, vacillating between hope and despair: “Do you see the clear wave laughter / And the deep blue sea? … No, they tell me the blue sea / Has long turned to blood.” Despair always wins in this kind of song.

 

So, that’s where Faithfull began – a sweet voice coming from that sweet face framed with golden hair, with vast darkness beneath. But it didn’t take long for her more interesting edges to show, along with her sense of humor. She recorded “Crazy Lady Blues” on the country-leaning Rich Kid Blues album (recorded in 1971 but not released until ʼ85). The song had just been composed and recorded by fellow Brit Sandy Denny. Faithfull gives it an off-kilter tumble that evokes some old honkytonk after almost everyone has staggered out for the night.

 

And what’s she been up to since the days of miniskirts and Mars Bars? (Google it, if you dare.) Faithfull has never stopped writing, arranging, and recording, putting out a steady stream of releases in the past 25 years.

When she made A Secret Life in 1995, she’d been listening to a lot of classical music. She seems to have tried to pull off a more polished, orchestrated sound than she was usually known for. But that doesn’t compromise her essential darkness. This is some beautifully desolate stuff.

One highlight is “Sleep,” a collaboration with composer Angelo Badalamenti and poet Frank McGuinness (the threesome co-wrote other songs on the album as well). It’s not just the keening synthesizer chords in minor modes, practically a-rhythmical so that the song seems to float in their viscous harmony. It’s not just McGuinness’ grim lines like “It is best to find in sleep / the missing pieces that you lost. / Best that you refuse to weep / Ash to ash, dust to dust.” The true key here is Faithfull’s voice, which seems corroded by some kind of eternal struggle, a vehicle loaded with heavy wisdom we ordinary mortals will never be able to carry.

 

Faithfull changed course again in 2002 with the album Kissin Time. For this collection, she took a cue from crooners like Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra, who’d kept on top of their game and stayed hip with the next generation by collaborating with younger artists. But instead of mainstream pop stars, Faithfull chose people known for their independent musical thinking.

This includes the members of the British band Blur, formed in 1988. The resulting title song sports an irresistible, naughty groove. Much of the funkiness is courtesy of the instrumental riffs: the guitars of Damon Albarn and Graham Coxon, bass of Alex James, and drums of Dave Rountree. But Faithfull on lead vocals knows her way around a sexy rhythm and a lurid lyric:

 

The edgy collaborations continued on the 2005 album Before the Poison. Blur’s Albarn is back for more fun, along with top-notch songwriters Nick Cave and PJ Harvey. The terrifying title song, produced by Harvey, features Faithfull burrowing into the depths of her vocal range. That’s where she keeps the really creepy stuff buried. Then she brings it up an octave and lets loose some pretty hard rock.

 

For 2008’s Easy Come, Easy Go, Faithfull took the concept of collaboration with younger musicians to the next level. Again she brings in some artists to sing and play with her, but they’re doing songs written by other artists. Particularly compelling for its rich, jazzy arrangement is “Children of Stone,” a cover of a song by Philadelphia-based “psychedelic folk” band The Espers. Joining Faithfull in this hypnotizing but deranged number is Rufus Wainwright, soaring through several layers of the stratosphere with his floating tenor.

 

Faithfull’s most recent studio album is Give My Love to London (2014). While many critics have focused on “Mother Wolf” as the late-life answer to her 1969 song “Sister Morphine,” to me the album’s crown jewel is the harrowing “Late Victorian Holocaust.” The lyrics are by Nick Cave, whose style glorifies Faithfull’s like sunlight glinting behind the dome of St. Paul’s. Get in the Cave-Faithfull time machine and visit a ragged, passionate version of London past:

 

Keep making albums, Marianne. The world needs your dark truths and rough philosophy.