When the news struck early last year that Marianne Faithfull had contracted COVID-19, the music world gasped in horror. Would the Grande Dame Du Rock & Roll leave us? Surely not? Thankfully anyone who knows anything about the 74-year-old singer can tell you that she has always been a staunch and fearless survivor, so it was going to take a lot more than a pesky global pandemic to truly keep her down. And so, with a large sigh of relief, here we have a superlative album of new material by Faithfull, reciting some of her favourite childhood poetry, skilfully accompanied by longtime collaborator Warren Ellis and a few close friends.
Discovering a rare fourth edition of the Palgrave Golden Treasury poetry anthology as she entered her teenage years, its pages filled with works by Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth and Byron, her love for the poems within was reflected whilst at school, when she decided to study poetry at A-level. For the adolescent Faithfull, that connection wasn’t merely academic; she didn’t simply read the poems, she lived them. The unfortunate Victorian wretch inferred by Thomas Hood in The Bridge Of Sighs wasn’t just some pitiful character to the impressionable youth, she was a soul mate, someone with a life she felt an affinity with, despite her antecedents’ aristocratic connections.
Half a century on, her fondness for the works contained was evident when she approached Ellis to discuss the possibility of recording a spoken word album. They’d worked together many times but Faithfull was unsure if Ellis would be able to free up time from his busy schedule working with Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, as well as his soundtrack work. Upon seeing Faithfull’s enthusiasm, not only did Ellis instantly agree, but Cave jumped at the chance to join in the proceedings, bringing along cellist Vincent Ségal and Brian Eno. With PJ Harvey’s producer Head on board to mix the album, She Walks In Beauty began to take shape just before lockdown began and was completed once Faithfull had started her path to recovery.
The poems selected are a treat for fans with extensive knowledge of the Romantics and equally for those with none. Comic book and cult television fans will probably know Shelley’s 14-line sonnet Ozymandias from its iconic usage in Watchmen and Breaking Bad respectively, and perhaps a few might have heard of Keats’ Ode To A Nightingale but not many will know Wordsworth’s sorrow tinged Surprised By Joy, or Byron’s oddly tender She Walks In Beauty. However, Faithfull’s warm gravelly tone imparts a real fullness to each one. Sonorous and calmly delivered, it’s indeed a surprising joy to let the words wrap around you.
A large part of that gratification comes from Ellis’s charismatic score. Unobtrusive to the point of almost being fictional, piano keys are soothingly caressed with the slightest of touch, violins tremble thriftlessly and the watercoloured melodies all but turn to vapour. The liner notes indicate that former lover Mick Jagger took inspiration from Tennyson’s The Lady Of Shalott when he wrote As Tears Go By for Faithfull, reminding us of a time when pop stars were literate soppy aesthetes, not just music academy savants or bedroom bound reprobates. Linking the Kensington socialite with Arthurian lore, the young Jagger had the foresight to see how mythical Faithfull would one day be. Hopefully, unlike the doomed heroine of the poem, Faithfull will continue embellishing her legend for many a year more.