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Marianne Faithfull

The Best of Marianne Faithfull (20th Century Masters: Millennium Collection)

(20th Century Masters: Millennium Collection; US: 21 Oct 2003; UK: 12 Jan 2004)

So Sad

This isn’t just corporate exploitation of back catalog, this is bad, completely unnecessary corporate exploitation of back catalog. It has 11 songs, the same number as 1994’s more definitive Faithfull: Collection of Her Best Recordings compilation. That compilation, still in print, also contains 11 songs, 7 of which are also found here (and Island has the nerve to list that album along with the recommendations given in the liner notes of this album).


And this album doesn’t contain “Why’d Ya Do It”. Really. The only mention is when the liner notes mentions that her Broken English album contains the three songs excerpted here “(and much more besides!)”. Is that a joke? Like Carl Perkins, a fellow multi-trick pony with a fair amount of significant work and whose place in history nonetheless depends on one song, Faithfull’s impact on the culture at large rides on that song. Despite her memorable interpretations of Kurt Weill, John Lennon, and, er, Shel Silverstein, her defining role was as the wronged woman seething with a fury barely contained by the synth beat wrapped around the song the song, snarling lines like, “Every time I see your dick / I see her cunt in my bed”.


That song was one of those rare intersections of personal ability and cultural momentum, with public fascination and real artistic power. After emerging in the ‘60s as the teenaged, angelic-looking and -sounding, carnally knowing consort of Mick Jagger, Faithfull’s moment seemed to end with the decade’s trippy idealism. A celebrity burnout by her late 20s (Supposedly, Mick Jagger wrote “Wild Horses” for her while she was in a drug-induced coma), she ducked out of sight in a haze of drugs and spent years actually living the bohemian junkie life that had fascinated the counterculture since Kerouac hit the road.


Except that, instead of overdosing in some motel room, she returned in 1979 with Broken English, an angry, haunted, desperate album from an artist who, with good reason, was seen as being genuinely every bit as angry, haunted, and desperate as her persona. With a perfectly fitted voice cracked from cigarettes and booze and more, Faithfull was old before her time. So old that, on that album and since then, she’s sounded timeless, as ancient and ageless and, yes, feminist as the Earth Mother evoked on Broken English‘s “Witches’ Song”.


And “Why’d Ya Do It” was the culmination of her artistic persona, her life, and the rising feminism of the times. Though the written song transcribes a philanderer’s obscenely clever retorts to his shrewish interrogator (“When I stole a twig from our little nest / And gave it to a bird with nothing in her beak / I had my balls in my brains put into a vice / And twisted around for a whole fucking week”. And that’s just literally the start), Faithfull pits her bravura performance against the cool, cold wit of the chauvinist narrator and, by tearing through his wit and spitting out his rejoinders, makes his one-liners seem as tasteless as they are. Through sheer force of will, Faithless hijacks the song and transforms it into a feminist rant. At her best and in her defining historic moment, Faithfull was a woman of her own times responding to eternal situations and passions. Or vice versa: an Earth Mother, yes, but an Earth Mother who could understand the desperation and fury of suburban housewives and leftist terrorists. A high goddess who could understand how it felt to be betrayed by, not Zeus, but a mere lowlife lothario.


So how could anyone possibly leave “Why’d Ya Do It” from any compilation of Faithfull’s best?


To her credit, Faithfull apparently wasn’t involved with this crass product, as she gets no compilation credit or special thanks in the liner notes. Hopefully, that explains the difference between this compilation and the Faithfull-approved picks of Faithfull, released to coincide with the release of her autobiography, had the extreme good grace of taking the best from her best studio album, improving the other songs, and then rendering her best studio album obsolete.


Divorced from historical context or from the essential song not included here, there are good songs here, even a great song or two (Any or all of the first three could not unjustifiably be thus crowned). But it would be difficult to imagine a more inessential Marianne Faithfull album. Instead of this, start with either Broken English (her best original album) or the aforementioned Faithfull (her best album, period, but more expensive). And go from there. Or start and end with the two lengthy discs of A Perfect Stranger: The Anthology, which contains all (and then some) of what most would ever need from her. Choose any of those over this. This deserves to be boycotted by anyone willing to buy a Marianne Faithfull album.

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