Marianne Faithfull, in collaboration with kindred spirits PJ Harvey and Nick Cave, has created a bleak masterpiece on par with Johnny Cash's final albums.
I have a theory that Marianne Faithfull died in the mid-'70s, not an unlikely scenario all things considered, and that her albums since have been beacons from the other side. Her voice, creaky and seemingly centuries-old, clearly does not come from the eternal delight of a heaven, or the pain and suffering of a hell. It instead comes from an indifferent void. Hers is a voice stripped away of all earthly illusions, one, as she sings on a cover of PJ Harvey's "No Child of Mine", that has "no time for hate or love". Only this could explain how Faithfull's voice went from that of a moping English songbird to an instrument of nearly impossible gravity. And nowhere has she used her voice with more effectiveness than on Before the Poison, an album that can only be compared to the devastating albums Johnny Cash released during his final years.
On Before the Poison, Faithfull's voice is guided by a number of mediums: PJ Harvey, Nick Cave, Damon Albarn, and Jon Brion. Although collaborative albums often seem unfocused, Faithfull takes control of the proceedings and makes Before the Poison a powerful, cohesive artistic statement on loss and survival. "The Mystery of Love", penned by Harvey, begins with the vital question: "Tell me, do we still have time? / To make the wrong somehow be right?" The album seems to suggest that there is little one can do to make a fundamentally flawed world into some sort of paradise. Even "The Mystery of Love", a song about the possibility of love somehow righting wrongs, opens with a declaration that "when you're not by my side / The world's in two, and I'm a fool". If love can save the world, it always has the possibility to split it in two. It is Faithfull's sense of inevitable, unavoidable loss, just below the surface of "The Mystery of Love", that leaks through the remaining tracks. The lyrics speak for themselves: "It's the last song for you" ("Last Song); "What's left for you, my friend?" ("Before the Poison"); "Where has my loverman gone?" ("There Is a Ghost"). Faithfull's solemn voice, beyond romance and myth, conveys, if only by hints, the realization that loss is the inevitable cost of life.
Even "My Friends Have", a rousing swamp-rocker from Harvey about the importance of friendship, has a hint of darkness. Harvey's lyrics are innocuous, an ode to one's friends and their necessity in life: "My friends have many things that, / I am needing, to keep me singing". Faithfull sings the song flatly, her calm tone contrasting with Harvey's angular guitar riffs, hinting at the darkness within the word "need". Without contact, life is almost unlivable, but Faithfull's voice conveys the knowledge that these connections are liable to fall apart at any point. The title track expands this by showcasing the moment of the loss of innocence, the place where the Marianne Faithfull of "As Tears Go By" was replaced by the Marianne Faithfull of Broken English: "Before the poison / I'd lost my fear / Maybe too happy / To even care". There is a moment when the mind sees, if only for a second, the indifferent cruelty always present behind the surface of life. All of Before the Poison seems to take place during this moment of terrible maturity.
This awful right of passage is also vividly acted out in Faithfull's definitive rendition of Harvey's previously recorded "No Child of Mine", where she portrays a mother coldly tossing her child away, consciously breaking even the bonds of motherhood, ordering it to "find (its) own way": "Every man must stand alone / And family you must disown". The song does not support or refute the narrator's decision, it simply shows it as example of another bond shattered and another painful realization of the world's true nature.
These are all areas that Nick Cave has explored with great success on his own albums, so he flourishes in his three contributions. "Crazy Love" and "There is a Ghost" are powerful new additions to his canon, but he saves his greatest contribution in the music accompaniment of Faithfull's self-penned "Desperanto", a free floating rant on the "language of despair". As Faithfull's singing evolves into something approximating a rap, Cave leads the band into a howling apocalyptic swirl of violins and white noise that highlights the emotional chaos just barely contained by Faithfull's bone-dry delivery. Cave himself sings along, obliquely quoting "Break on Through" during the chorus. It is a powerful release of the negative emotion that builds throughout the entire album. It is a primal scream of a song, designed to exhaust the language of despair, because Before the Poison is not an album of hopelessness. Before the Poison is an album about managing to survive the nearly unbearable without harboring any illusions about any lights at the end of any tunnel.
Before the Poison clearly is not a joyful album, even Damon Albarn's "Last Song" is about as far away from the pop world as one could imagine, but it is an album whose purpose is not to depress but to provide comfort, if only of the coldest kind. Hours after receiving my review copy, I learned that a friend of mine, far far too young, had passed on after a short fight with cancer. Something about Faithfull's gravely tone, the voice that acknowledges the horrors of life without speaking the "language of despair", has somehow provided a bleak type of consolation in face of this loss. This is the true power of Before the Poison: it takes stories of tragedy and misery and presents them with just enough beauty to allow us to accept them. It is simply a stunning accomplishment.