Marianne Faithfull has lived hard and put her voice through hell over the course of her 47-year career, and on her 24th studio album, Horses And High Heels, all of that abuse comes through with crushing poignancy. The album has that worn-in, hauntingly authentic, soulful sound that can only come through bitter experience, and Faithfull, finally over the writer’s block that produced 2009’s Easy Come, Easy Go, casts a sharp-edged shadow over the whole thing. She sounds sage-like and raspy, relaxed and at home amid the expert cast of New Orleans musicians who surround her.
There are plenty of impressive cameos here, but there’s also a distinct lack of duets (which featured so prominently on Easy Come, Easy Go) or the sort of heavy collaboration that has earmarked much of Faithfull’s career. Lou Reed plays guitar on a couple of tracks and Wayne Kramer and Dr John make appearances. But mostly, it’s the cast of New Orleans locals that give the album its flavour (see the exceptional juke-joint rocker No Reasons, or the sweaty bar room thumper Gee Baby).
The album’s only real problem is that Faithfull seems a bit too well produced under the steady hand of longtime producer Hal Willner. In all her hard-lived authenticity, she’s never allowed to really come across as vulnerable or bare, and the finely honed musicianship that forms the album’s fa�ade seems incapable of faltering, glinting and flashing as it does. One has to wonder how much more affecting Faithfull might sound under the direction of Rick Rubin or T-Bone Burnett.
Horses And High Heels is still mostly covers, the standouts among which include The Twilight Singers‘ The Stations, Carole King‘s Goin’ Back, and The Shangri-Las‘ Past, Present And Future. And the album closes with The Old House, a song specially written for Faithfull by the Irish playwright Frank McGuiness. Yet the album’s real highlights are the four tunes Faithfull penned herself.
She imbues the crushing Why Did We Have To Part with the sort of bitter regret and melancholy (“It was over and I didn’t know it; living without you feels so strange”) that can’t be faked or covered. There’s a mix of anger and sadness in lines like “The night you said you loved another, I simply could not take it in,” and the overall effect is chilling.
But, Faithfull has a way of injecting everything here with a sense of immediacy and emotional gravity, so much so that each cover feels very much like her own, and that she’s been singing all these songs for decades. More importantly, she’s been living them, and that makes all the difference. Horses And High Heels is another impressive entry in her catalogue, as genuine as anything she’s done since the 1979 classic Broken English. Certainly, today’s crop of would-be soul revivalists could learn quite a lot about from the honest and intense talent on display here.