Charming Us All
“I am a muse, not a mistress, not a whore,” sings Marianne Faithfull on her new album Kissin’ Time. Strong, smart words, and sung with world-weary, yet biting candor; after all, if anyone deserves to sing such a line, it’s her. Discovered by Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham in 1964, the then 17-year-old Faithfull experienced instant success with her soft-voiced, folk rock rendition of “As Tears Go By”, which was also the very first song ever written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards (story has it that Oldham locked the pair in a room and told them not to come out until they had a song for that pretty girl). Faithfull went on to have a rather ordinary career as a late ‘60s chanteuse, and with the exception of her chilling 1969 version of the Stones’ “Sister Morphine” (a song she co-wrote with Jagger and Richards), she didn’t put out any material of the timeless quality.
She still was in the media spotlight, though, but was primarily portrayed by the media as merely a courtesan to Jagger, and an ultra-chic symbol of Swinging London, and was at the center of one of the biggest media circuses in 1967, when Keith Richards’ house was raided by police (apparently, Faithfull was wearing nothing but a fur rug when the cops charged in). After her 1968 miscarriage, drugs began to play a bigger and bigger part in her life, and as the ‘70s rolled around, Faithfull all but disappeared from the public eye. When she emerged in 1979 with her stunning comeback album Broken English, the change in both her voice and her songwriting was astounding. Gone was the flat, wispy schoolgirl singing; in its place was a husky, cracked, Gauloise-cool voice, one that spat out some of the most personal, angrily candid lyrics since Patti Smith, best exemplified on the brilliant “Why’d Ya Do It?” (“I had my balls and my brains put into a vice/And twisted around for a whole fucking week”).
After the critical success of Broken English, Faithfull went on to various singing and acting projects over the years; most notably in the ‘90s, in inspired turn as God on the television series Absolutely Fabulous, and a surprisingly good guest appearance on Metallica’s 1997 single, “The Memory Remains” that had metalheads going, “Who’s the old lady?” 1999’s Vagabond Ways was another bit of a comeback album, and while good, it seemed like not much more than a “She’s back-and better than ever!” epilogue to her Behind the Music episode from the same year. This time, though, she’s ready to build on the critical success of that album.
Kissin’ Time follows the Santana formula of Boomer artists making a commercial comeback with the help of younger songwriters. However, instead of turing to safe, bland, corporate rock artists like Rob Thomas for help (like Santana), or enlisting the help of hopelessly retro hacks like Lenny Kravitz (see Mick Jagger), Faithfull has done a really smart thing in pairing up with some of the better younger artists in music today, in the form of Beck, Billy Corgan, Pulp, and Blur. The result is an album rich in variety, good pop sense, and the unmistakable cool of someone like Faithfull.
The only downer on Kissin’ Time is a brief one, and is during the first song, “Sex with Strangers”. Lyrically, it’s very strong, as Faithfull sings of desperate people looking for some kind of excitement (“You thought you’d try a little danger / And now you have betrayed yourself”), in a Serge Gainsbourg (or Marlene Dietrich) inspired spoken voice. Musically, though, it’s all Beck’s fault. Kooky Blues Beck is great, and I even tolerate Retro Funky Beck, but when Mr. Hanson is wearing his techno hat, he’s utterly awful (remember that crappy remix he did of Air’s “Sexy Boy”?), and he does a butcher job on Faithfull’s song, with robotic synth bloops and bleeps and 1980s drum machine.
Beck helps out on two other songs, and it’s on these where his talents mesh the best with Faithfull’s. The lovely “Like Being Born” is a mellow, acoustic song that sounds more like Beck’s Mutations album. Backed up by Beck and the unmistakable keyboards of the Jon Brion, Faithfull sings a gently melodic song about her parents: “My father promised me roses / My mother promised me storms”. Beck adds a slight bluesy twang to the moody “Nobody’s Fault”, a beautiful six and a half minute ballad that features some arresting imagery in Faithfull’s lyrics (“When the world is full of nails, darkened jails and garbage pails / And their tongues are full of heartless tales that drain on you”).
If Beck provides the brooding atmosphere, Billy Corgan supplies the pop. “I’m on Fire” is all-out electropop, with layers of ethereal synth, a languid drum beat, and entrancing backing vocals, as Faithfull sings unabashedly rose-colored verses (“I only had to find the key / Surely love would come to me / You’d look into my glittering eyes / And everything would be all right”). Faithfull’s voice is in stellar form on “Wherever I Go”, the best bet for a successful single off the album. Marianne displays less of a croak, in favor of a more innocent-sounding, yet still smoky, croon, as Corgan backs her up with more lush music. And only someone as cool as Marianne Faithfull could pull off an unironic cover of Herman’s Hermits’ “I’m Into Something Good” and make it sound dignified and stately, yet still hopelessly optimistic. Corgan’s talents as a producer shine through again on this track; judging by the brilliant evidence on Kissin’ Time, Corgan should be doing more producing. His work on the three tracks is masterful.
It’s on the two tracks done in collaboration with the British stalwarts where Kissin’ Time best displays its brilliance. Faithfull’s partnership with Blur yields the fascinating title track. With Damon Albarn’s bluesy guitar riff and backing vocals, Graham Coxon’s trademark flourishes, Alex James’s loping bass, and Dave Rowntree’s suitably understated drumming, “Kissin’ Time” combines Faithfull’s soulful vocals with what’s, essentially, the best Blur song in years. Even better, though, is the spectacular “Sliding Through Life on Charm”, written by Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker. Arguably the best lyricist in rock music today, Cocker, inspired by Faithfull’s own autobiography, has written a song that perfectly sums up Faithfull’s amazing life in less than four minutes. There’s the trademark candor that can be expected from the likes of Faithfull and Cocker (“Suburban shits who want some class / All queue up to kiss my ass”), but the best moment in the song, and on the entire album, is the last verse, spoken by Faithful: “I wonder why the schools don’t teach anything useful nowadays, like how to fall from grace, and slide with elegance from a pedestal I never asked to be on in the first place”. Not only is the song impeccably performed by Faithfull and Pulp, but it’s also one of the best songs of the year, and one of the best songs Jarvis Cocker has ever written.
Rounding off the album is the quick, guitar-driven pop of “Love and Money”, the techno stylings of the ironically-titled “The Pleasure Song”, and “Song for Nico”, produced by ex-Eurythmic Dave Stewart, on which Faithfull sings about the former Velvet Underground chanteuse who led a parallel life to Faithfull’s, but experienced much more bad luck. Faithfull’s lyrics show sympathy for the late icon, as if understanding, “There, but for the grace of God . . .”
Aside from one miniscule distraction, Kissin’ Time delivers, and is a rousing success for Faithfull. On the record she further enhances her image as a grand, elder stateswoman of pop music. It’s not all the drugs she did or the famous people she bedded that makes her so cool, it’s the fact that she’s emerged from many difficult years with her head held high, and a voice (and what an entrancing voice it is) that demands to be heard. Marianne Faithfull may have gracefully slid down that unwanted pedestal she was on, but now, she deserves to be atop another one, one befitting a truly original female artist, one whose music is more vital than it’s ever been.