Marianne Faithfull’s meditative new album, She Walks in Beauty, reflects her lifelong love of the Romantic poets, although it elides their more radical edges. By Isabella Trimboli.
She Walks in Beauty
In the summer of 1967, Allen Ginsberg was invited to the home of Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull and arrived to find the pair naked in their bedroom, draped only in a fur rug. The poet tried to persuade Jagger to craft an anti-war anthem for The Rolling Stones: specifically, by setting to music William Blake’s poem The Grey Monk, about a pacifist jailed for sedition.
Jagger couldn’t be persuaded, but 54 years later Faithfull has delivered her own tribute to the Romantic poets. There’s no Blake, but his counterparts – Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth, Byron – appear on She Walks in Beauty, Faithfull’s 21st studio album. Her readings are paired with arrangements by multi-instrumentalist, long-time collaborator and Bad Seed member Warren Ellis, with contributions by Nick Cave, Brian Eno and cellist Vincent Ségal.
Obsessed with the Romantics since she was a teenager, Faithfull had held on to the album idea for decades but only began to record last year. Her work was interrupted when she contracted Covid-19 in April 2020, growing so sick that obituaries were pre-emptively written and her hospital notes instructed “palliative care only”. But, as with the many other times the artist has edged towards death, she lived.
Maybe Faithfull’s project is a way to summon an alternative life. As a teenager, Faithfull planned to study English literature at Oxford; instead, she became a pop star. She was discovered by Andrew Loog Oldham, who was then managing The Rolling Stones, at a party. Beyond her melancholic hit “As Tears Go By”, she spent much of the 1960s producing relatively unmemorable folk records. When she began dating Mick Jagger, she became the embodiment of ’60s beauty and hedonism: decadence with a death wish. What followed were years of revolt and disorder – heavy heroin use, anorexia, multiple suicide attempts – that clouded discussion of her work.
Reading the many articles about Faithfull, one gets the impression of a less tidy narrative that has been stripped of its complexity and compressed. It’s too easy to reduce entire lives to poles of addiction and recovery, sickness and health, downfalls and comebacks, annihilation and survival. It’s more difficult to consider the banal in-between, the period before the brink.
In 1979 – still not sober and still riding the wave of marginal success after her cover of “Dreaming My Dreams” became an unexpected emblem for Irish liberation – Faithfull released her masterpiece, Broken English. Here were songs inflamed and exhilarating, fuelled by fury; songs about witches, the Red Army Faction, mad housewives, sex, addiction and guilt. In these bleak and wounding missives, Broken English bottled the disappointments and failed revolutions of a generation, and foretold the wave of greed and cruelty to come.
There was also her voice. Her once-pretty vocal cords had been pulverised by years of cigarettes, substances and laryngitis. What emerged was the kind of voice you wake up with after an all-night screaming match, consonants coming out cracked and coarse.
“Faithfull’s voice, raggedly notched and erratic, sometimes starts flat or strikes a note like a bald tire hitting a patch of glare ice,” wrote Gary Indiana for The Village Voice in 1987. “But what’s there all the time is this ripping knife of an alto, rueful and accusingly strange and vulnerable.”
She Walks in Beauty has been called an unexpected choice, but Faithfull’s output has consistently intersected with poetry. On her 1995 collaborative album with composer Angelo Badalamenti, A Secret Life, she recites Dante and Shakespeare. Her 1983 track “She’s Got a Problem” is a poem about alcoholism by Lady Caroline Blackwood, a writer and heiress, whose public biography, like Faithfull’s, is also smothered by her romantic relationships – in this case, with Lucian Freud and Robert Lowell.
English poet Heathcote Williams wrote the lyrics for “Why D’Ya Do It?” the incendiary track that closes Broken English. It’s one of Faithfull’s greatest songs: ribald, funny, full of spite and so laden with vulgarities that workers at an EMI plant staged a walkout, refusing to press the record. A vicious exchange between a woman and her cheating partner, the song illuminates Faithfull’s formidable talents in delivery. She always knows where to press down, where to placate, and where to screw her voice into a vicious, contemptuous drawl.
In January, Faithfull told The Guardian that the sustained effects of the virus mean she is currently unable to sing. I doubt it will spell the end of her career: some of Faithfull’s best recent work has straddled song and spoken word, with Faithfull carving meaning from inflections of speech. One of the most affecting poems on She Walks in Beauty is “Surprised by Joy” – not so much because of Wordsworth’s verses, which teeter on platitudinous, but in the way in which Faithfull’s speech snags on the word “pang” and slightly cracks on “silent tomb”, her gnarled voice capturing the jagged edges of grief.
On She Walks in Beauty, Warren Ellis conjures meditative, solitary feelings through minimalist compositions. Guitar and drums have been traded for piano, organ and violin, which sit on a bed of spectral synths signalling towards an unknown, celestial space. The sound recalls his most recent work for Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, particularly the sorrowful Ghosteen.
There are a few moments where Ellis’s arrangements dilute the meaning of the works. Thomas Hood’s “The Bridge of Sighs” describes the suicide of a young woman whose corpse is being pulled ashore. Faithfull’s reading is paired with triumphant strings and piano, and as a consequence the track feels maudlin.
One may question whether there is much need to rehash the Romantics, who have been reinterpreted, reconfigured and recontextualised for centuries. And this really is a greatest hits collection. But in a period of sustained anguish, the Romantics’ chief concerns – the divinity of nature, surrendering to irresolution and death’s smeared contours – are worth sitting with. There are faint calls for refusal: to loiter, to engage in impractical activity that does not grease the wheels of commerce. But these murmurs of dissent could be resounding if the poems selected had made room for the movement’s more radical streak.
This is a slim survey of the Romantics that misses the chance to thread their rebellious politics to our present. The omission of William Blake – who rallied against the church and state, who celebrated working-class revolutionaries – is felt, and is surprising given Faithfull’s documented adoration for the artist and poet.
The record is certainly a balm. It’s easy to be lulled by Faithfull’s charred voice, which convulses with vulnerability. Still, I miss when Faithfull is wedded to more barbed material, her force indisputable when singing – or speaking – in registers of rage and regret.
The album closes with “The Lady of Shalott”, the famous Tennyson lyric about a cursed woman imprisoned and alone in a grey tower, unable to venture among the living without causing her own death. She spends hours hand-weaving images of the outside world, taken from her only view: a tiny mirror. Tennyson wrote the poem in 1833, based on a 13th-century Italian short story, but the poem pricks on ideas eternal, familiar: the chain between art-making and isolation, the cohabitation of desire and suffering, and how being “half sick of shadows” – alienated and exiled – urges us towards destruction.
Who better to voice these wounds than Marianne Faithfull?
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 15, 2021 as "Ragged, raw poetry".
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