Against an arresting backdrop of turbulent percussion (Dimitri Tikovoi and Rob Ellis), gnarly guitars (Adrian Utley), shrieky violin (Warren Ellis) and dreamy organ (Ed Harcourt), Marianne Faithfull delivers a denunciation of the bad guys on “Mother Wolf”, the single most startling track on her altogether excellent new album, Give My Love to London. “The words that come out of your mouth disgust me / The thoughts in your heart … sicken me!” Faithfull intones with matchless disdain, as the music surges, swirls and swells around her. It’s a thrilling, cathartic performance, part of the power of which resides in its laying to rest -- once and for all -- the hidebound notion that grandmothers can’t rock.
As she’s proved over the years (most notoriously on Broken English’s infamous Heathcote Williams-penned kiss-off “Why'd Ya Do It?”), Faithfull is often at her finest when furious, bringing an actress’s sense of grandeur and hauteur to extreme emotions. But although she’s to be found fuming again here on the brisk, marvelously strident rocker “True Lies", Give My Love to London explores and expresses Faithfull’s full emotional range and interpretive skills across its 11 tracks, all delivered in that inimitable smoky croak.
Released in the 50th year of her career (yes, it really was 1964 when “As Tears Go By” first fluted across the airwaves), the latest album feels like a summation and a fulfillment of sorts, looking backwards and forwards both musically and lyrically, and continuing the starry collaborative approach that’s defined Faithfull’s recorded output since the release of Kissin’ Time back in 2002.
New co-conspirators this time out include Anna Calvi, Steve Earle, Tom McRae and Ed Harcourt, with previous cohorts Nick Cave and Roger Waters also on board. (Waters' eerily prophetic “Incarceration of a Flower Child” was a highlight of Faithfull’s Vagabond Ways 15 years ago.) And talk about deluxe casting: it’s amusing to find that Faithfull has recruited Brian Eno, no less, to chime in briefly on backing vocals on just one song here.
Sonically, Give My Love to London is not far removed from the Daniel Lanois-produced Vagabond Ways, combining ambient, textured arrangements with starker, sparer moments. But following 2008’s ambitious double-album of cover versions Easy Come, Easy Go and 2011’s underrated Horses and High Heels, which was mostly covers too, it’s great to see Faithfull delivering a predominantly self-penned set here, the result of a back injury that left her immobilized for some months and in a contemplative, creative frame of mind.
The title track, the Earle co-write, is a dryly sarcastic "tribute" to a city that’s been the site of many of Faithfull’s principal pleasures and pains. The vocal is insecure but Earle supplies trusty twang and the song’s ambivalence still communicates, as Faithfull contemplates roles, rendezvous and a return via cheeky local references and Riots-inspired imagery. The surging, hymnal treatment of Waters’s “Sparrows Will Sing”, with its lyrical nod to Lewis Carroll, answers the title track nicely, wresting a redemptive vision of the future from a present that, as Faithfull witheringly intones, is little more than “a candyfloss techno hell".
The excellent Calvi co-write “Falling Back” soars and chimes irresistibly, and at the more intimate end is the exquisite Tom McRae collaboration “Love More Or Less”, a timelessly elegant and haunting item. A centerpiece to the album is provided by the sublime bespoke Nick Cave composition, Late Victorian Holocaust, a lyrically opaque, chamber-intense dirge that Faithfull delivers divinely.
A raggedy bar-band stomp through the Everly Brothers' “The Price of Love” feels less essential, but the closing croak through Hoagy Carmichael’s “I Get Along Without You Very Well” is marvelous, making this most familiar of standards sound like something that’s scuttled out of a smoky Berlin dive circa 1928. And the take on Leonard Cohen’s recent “Going Home” is just great, twisting this most archly self-conscious of songs into a wryly affectionate communion between battle-scarred veterans, still out there working and creating.
In our tabloid-driven culture, Faithfull’s recorded output has always risked being obscured by the more sensational aspects of her rock-star myth: a life trajectory that’s encompassed everything from Soho street corner to the Salzburg Festival. But for the artist herself, it seems, it’s always been the music that’s mattered most. And that commitment is reflected in a stellar body of work that’s continuing to develop in exciting, vital ways, as Give My Love to London so eloquently attests. “I look at everything that I’ve done: the years, the days, the hours,” Faithfull sings on “Love More Or Less”. Although in no sense obviously “confessional”, the new record offers the richly compelling sound of an artist singing out of those experiences, with humanity, humour and wisdom. That doesn't make her, as some critics have commented, “the female Cohen” or “the female Cash”; such a description is offensive, however complimentary it might be meant. Rather, she’s Faithfull: volatile and unpredictable, intellectual and insightful, savage and soothing, and delivering in Give My Love to London as accomplished and compelling an album as she’s ever made.