The opening lines of Marianne Faithfull’s new CD, Vagabond Ways, may not be explicitly autobiographical I have no idea, for instance, if she was ever a teenage mother but a longtime listener might be excused for thinking so. In a business that has raised drug use and procreation to the level of athletic competition, Faithfull’s performance in both categories has been positively Olympian. And her well-documented history gives Vagabond Ways its distinctive smolder. Her music rises out of sex’s embers.
It is sex that produces the gloriously growling, croaking, catching, rasping sound that emerges from Marianne Faithfull’s mouth. Well, sex and a lot of booze, and the boatloads of pot and coke and heroin she absorbed through the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, and the twenty cartons of cigarettes she sucks down every day. (Her album photos show her, fittingly, clutching one of her beloved cancer sticks: Marianne without a cigarette is like Madonna without a personal trainer.) But when I hear Marianne Faithfull, I hear the voice of carnal experience. The voice of a woman who has woken up too many times next to a guy she can’t remember meeting, a guy she probably fucked for smack or because she was too stoned to realize he wasn’t the guy she thought she was fucking. A woman who can’t even count all the soiled sheets and the nosebleeds and the rug burns and the missing purses and the torn panties and the capsized ash trays.
So what is it about those lost weeks and weekends that sets Marianne to yearning? “I cherish the night of your marathon kiss,” she chants. “Chemicals flying into the mist.” But Faithfull is too complex, too bruised a creature to flood herself with counterculture nostalgia. She knows how deeply she once waded in, and it scares her. “I can feel your dangerous love around me./ Do I want to go there again?/ Where all I wanted was for you to drown me/ And love was there to make me go insane?”
Love could be pretty dangerous then, especially when the love object was Mick Jagger. She met him in 1964, before she had even reached eighteen, and it was Jagger and Keith Richard who wrote her first hit, “As Tears Go By.” With her blue eyes and blond hair and Catholic-school trappings and acclaimed bosom, she might be (superficially) characterized as the Britney Spears of her era, except she hung out with scarier people and, more to the point, had sex. But that’s what sex symbols did in those days, hard as it is to remember. Today’s nymphettes give artful and exacting impersonations of sex they slip a bra strap off their shoulder, they sling their pelvises out, they make O-rings with their mouths . . . and their erogenous zones stay as cloistered as a Benedictine abbey. They would be doing the nasty, if it weren’t so nasty.
Marianne was the real thing . . . and perhaps a little too much of the real thing. What with all the failed marriages, the suicide attempts and the multiple addictions, it wasn’t until the release of 1979’s Broken English that people began to discern a thoughtful, fruitfully angry mind inside the public meshugas. And in the recordings she has put out since then, she has made a convincing case for herself as one of music’s great interpretive artists able to sing Bob Dylan, Billie Holliday and Leadbelly with equal conviction, able to inhabit Kurt Weill more thoroughly than anyone this side of Lotte Lenya. (By contrast, Ute Lemper, the other great Weill interpreter, seems too clearly play-acting, too obviously arranging her effects.)
Vagabond Ways carries (in addition to several songs penned by the singer herself) contributions by Daniel Lanois, Roger Waters, Elton John and Leonard Cohen, and yet these disparate writers are all strangely co-opted by her spirit. And by her sound: the adult-contemporary wash of synthesizer, guitar and light percussion murky but penetrable, harmonically downbeat but tuneful. Vagabond Ways is music for grown-ups. It roots out the dark grains in even the lightest wood.
There’s nothing in her latest CD that rises to the high points of Broken English: nothing quite as haunting as “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan” or as crazily liberating as her great scatological dithyramb, “Why D’Ya Do It?” (“Why’d you let her suck your cock? . . . Every time I see you, I see her pussy in my bed . . . “) But I think it’s a more sustained work and inevitably, perhaps a wiser work. Her voice has never sounded so gorgeously ravaged, and she has never seemed so at home in her own crumbled temple. Leonard Cohen may have written the words, but Marianne Faithfull is living them: “Well, my friends have gone, and my hair is gray./ I ache in the places where I used to play./ And I’m crazy for love, but I’m not coming on./ I’m just paying my rent every day/ In the Tower of Song.”
Louis Bayard and Nerve.com, Inc.