Infamous French icon Serge Gainsbourg once said, “ugliness is in a way superior to beauty because it lasts.” Marianne Faithfull – former muse of The Rolling Stones, pop culture icon, ’60s sex symbol – will be 68 years old this December. A woman renowned for her beauty, who once called herself a Fabulous Beast, is no longer beautiful in the same way. And how could she be? All of us get old and therefore lose the illusion we are eternally invincible and gorgeous; age strips away the theatre of invincibility, and the artist must traverse a difficult path before going back to the roots whence they came, like a boomerang thrown through fire. Just as Bob Dylan has gone back to the Country and Folk music of his childhood and Paul McCartney is singing the old post-WWII standards that rang throughout his parents’ home, so has Faithfull returned back home to London; battered, scarred and experienced from five decades of a very strange and unexpected career.
Produced by the British legend Flood (Mark Ellis), and featuring collaborations with Brian Eno, Nick Cave, Roger Waters and more, Give My Love To London shows skill in its production, instrumentation and lyrical choices, with titles like Victorian Holocaust (written by Cave), a sombre Bad Seeds-styled ballad, or the Everly Brothers‘ The Price Of Love – released one year after Faithfull’s debut song As Tears Go By in 1964 – pumped up with ripping harmonica work and heavy instrumentation. The lovely, adorably British, Waters-composed Sparrows Will Sing has all the sonic fingerprints of Pink Floyd with the benefit of modern recording technology. “Callooh! Callooh! Callay!” Faithfull sings triumphantly in a canyon, until the song’s outer edge when the chorus descends down into muted, tired sing-song expression. The phrase “Callooh! Callay!” was first found in Lewis Carroll’s epic nonsense poem Jabberwocky as an exclamation of victory, and both words are, interestingly enough, two ways to pronounce the Classical Greek work “kalos”, meaning “good,” or “beautiful.” Is this a commentary on the “new generation” who “cannot seduced by this candy floss techno hell?” An anthem of hope that Britain may change for the better? If judged by how she sings it, then yes.
Since 1979’s seminal Broken English, a record showcasing a woman’s punk edges and frayed emotional state post-heroin veering into middle age, Faithfull’s vocals have been getting only more tattered and ancient. How much pleasure the listener derives from this work is indelibly linked to what they feel when hearing her carry a tune. It would be a lie to say her singing is traditionally pleasant to the ears. It would even be a lie to say her singing immediately gratifying. But her voice – that scratchy, burning, barbed wire wonder of a thing that sounds so English it almost hints at parody – will not leave you alone.
The cover of Leonard Cohen‘s Going Home illustrates Faithfull’s charm and power. Cohen’s lamenting, Jewish hymn is morphed into a music hall rag, sounding like your grandmother singing away while playing on the old upright in the living room. The difference between each performance says much about each artist. Cohen’s songs are, in essence, dry and reluctant anthems to God. Faithfull’s songs are restrained, posh odes to the stubborn self. She keeps each line intact, all those mentions of “Leonard” and “he,” and somehow makes it her own.
While some may see Faithfull as a warning sign of what happened when the excesses of her generation went too far, she is also a grand representative of something glorious: the possibility of redemption through embracing the broken parts of yourself. As she sings in that grabbing title track: “I’ll visit all the places I used to know so well/ from Maida Vale to Chelsea, paradise to hell/ paradise to hell, boys, paradise to hell!” you known she means every word. Serge would have been proud.