Marianne Faithfull has led a larger-than-life life, neatly divisible into iconic phases: aristocratic ingenue, folk/pop princess, Stones consort, street junkie, comeback queen. In the beginning she sang like a convent girl, a gorgeous teen with a gorgeous soprano, as sharp and bright as an icicle. In the famous words of Stones impresario Andrew Loog Oldham, who discovered her at an industry party, “I saw an angel with big tits and signed her.” On his orders, Faithfull’s future boyfriends Mick Jagger and Keith Richards wrote her first single, “As Tears Go By.” Her new pals must have been somewhat relieved to learn that the 17-year-old beauty with the long blond bangs and pillowy lips (and, of course, the all-important rack) could also carry a tune. But despite her fetching warble, the young Faithfull seemed unfinished, inauthentic somehow. She performed at an odd remove, as if she were singing in a foreign language that she’d learned phonetically and never bothered to translate. Back then, being pretty meant sounding pretty, and pretty was enough — enough for two albums, which would probably go unheard today if she hadn’t mastered the art of self-sabotage.
As Faithfull writes in her fascinating 1994 biography, finding herself meant destroying herself: “The Baroness’s Daughter, Pop Star Angel, Rock Star’s Girlfriend . . . even after the brutal bashing I’d given them, these demon dolls of myself would not go away. . . . By the mid-seventies I had reluctantly come to the conclusion that if I was ever to obliterate my past I’d have to create my own Frankenstein, and then become the creature as well.”
She found her Frankenstein in 1979 with the release of Broken English, a savage, profanity-laced rock/punk/disco manifesto that remains the purest expression of female rage ever committed to tape. Cocaine and cigarettes had ravaged the girlish trill, replaced it with a crone’s rasp, a desperate, cracking caw that seemed to be the distillation of an entire life. Anger and pity, desire and shame, greed and guilt, hatred and love — all the brutal, contradictory emotions that most singers only feign found their apotheosis in that defiantly unlovely voice. Ex-boyfriends were creeped out; critics were gaga. It’s been that way, to varying degrees, for the past 25 years as Faithfull has gone from cathartic rock to postmodern cabaret and back again, recording with everyone from Hal Willner to Beck.
Two years after her previous album, the star-studded but uneven Kissin Time, the 58-year-old singer has a new label and a new set of co-conspirators. Half the songs on Before the Poison were written or co-written with PJ Harvey; the rest are collaborations with Nick Cave, Damon Albarn, and Jon Brion. Although Harvey’s excoriating ballads are a perfect fit for Faithfull’s voice and temperament, Cave’s contributions, with the exception of the goofy skronk-funk experiment “Desperanto,” yield the most surprising rewards. “Crazy Love” is a magnificent downer, at once bitter and redemptive; “There Is a Ghost” is grim and mysterious, a slurry of strings scraping against a tinkling piano and Faithfull’s radiant croak. Albarn’s “Last Song” is elegant and edgy, a love song disguised as an anti-love song (or vice versa). “City of Quartz,” co-written with Brion, teems with toy pianos and fake glockenspiels, conveying a tone of doomed frivolity that underscores Faithfull’s apocalyptic lyrics. Despite their disparate co-authors, the CD’s 10 tracks form a cohesive whole. Obviously, some of the credit must go to her collaborators, who clearly understand Faithfull’s peculiar genius. But it’s her voice, her beautiful wreck of a voice, that transforms these songs into something greater than the sum of their parts. In it Faithfull has found her final Frankenstein, and it’s perfect.