Harvey, Cave ‘Poison’ Faithfull on latest album

Jason LeRoy

Credit: Jason LeRoy

Marianne Faithfull is one rockin’ old lady. While she started out as a fresh-faced young pop singer in 1960s London, a torrid relationship with Mick Jagger and years of heroin addiction transformed her into a rock goddess. This woman has engaged in substance abuse on a level that would scare Scott Weiland straight and has lived to tell the tale.

Faithfull doesn’t sing about her years living homeless with a needle sticking out of her arm. She doesn’t need to; her voice tells the story. Subterranean, cracked and oddly elegant, Faithfull’s voice is one of the most distinctive sounds one is likely to hear. It is certainly not pretty, but it is nothing less than riveting. If a tomb could sing, it would sound like Marianne Faithfull.

And now she is back with Before the Poison. While the album has already been described as a comeback in the manner of recent efforts from Loretta Lynn and Nancy Sinatra, this is entirely misleading. Faithfull has consistently released collections of new music every couple of years for the last 25 years. Her last album, 2002’s Kissin’ Time, featured collaborations with Beck, Jarvis Cocker and Dave Stewart.

On Poison, she is again flanked by admirers and well-wishers. However, since Faithfull is not your typical old lady, she doesn’t work with people like Bryan Adams or Rod Stewart (thank God). This time around she collaborates with PJ Harvey, Nick Cave, Damon Albarn (Blur) and Jon Brion. Her primary collaborators are Harvey and Cave, who contribute five and three songs, respectively.

If you know anything about Harvey and Cave, you may correctly assume that the prevailing mood on the album is one of doom-and-gloom romanticism. Harvey certainly isn’t one to shy away from writing in a minor key, and on her most recent album Uh Huh Her, she was “minor” enough to alienate critics and long-time fans alike.

In this sense, it is unfortunate that Faithfull is collaborating with her while she’s in this stage musically. The Harvey tracks basically sound like outtakes from Uh Huh Her. Actually, one of the songs is basically an outtake from the album: a full-length version of “No Child of Mine,” which was featured in an abridged version on Harvey’s album. This track is arguably the album’s centerpiece, alternating between haunted spoken verses and soaring emotional sing-along-style choruses.

The Cave tracks are even less successful. “Crazy Love” tries and fails to give Faithfull an outlet for her more theatrical tendencies, and “Desperanto” is a garish horn-blast-ridden nightmare. However, “There is a Ghost” is one of the best tracks on the album. The track is infused with a chilling blend of grief and terror, with Faithfull channeling the many deaths she has endured over her long career.

The Damon Albarn track, “Last Song,” is the most successful at combining the romance and drama which Faithfull embodies. And while the Jon Brion song, “City of Quartz,” sounds absolutely nothing like the rest of the album, this is actually a good thing. With its fractured music box background and Faithfull’s cryptic lyrics, the song hearkens back to Faithfull’s ethereal 1995 release, A Secret Life, on which she collaborated with Twin Peaks composer Angelo Badalamenti.

While Before the Poison might suffer a bit from relying too strongly on musicians at questionable points in their creative growth, it is still carried by Faithfull’s intelligent and riveting vocal delivery. Like Faithfull herself, the album is an acquired taste that grows on the listener more and more with every listen.

Contact pop arts reporter Jason C. LeRoy [email protected].