Marianne Faithfull has cultivated a persona that feels like an assemblage of hard living and rock and roll. A woman for whom the word “survivor” seems tailor-made, she navigated a career in rock music for nearly six decades, seemingly reincarnating herself repeatedly by pulling herself up through comeback after comeback. Though rock deities David Bowie and Madonna are feted as pop music chameleons, Faithfull has persevered while so many of her peers have failed by being able to adapt and grow perennially.
In the 1960s, she was a bright and lovely presence on the pop charts—a very English rose, trilling pretty pop-folk songs. She was an ethereal beauty: a lacey, girlish creature who was delicate and precious. Just listen to her 1964 rendition of “As Tears Go By“. Over Jimmy Page’s guitar strumming, Faithfull’s loose, laidback vocals are almost overwhelmed by the elaborate baroque production (courtesy of the Rolling Stones producer Andrew Loog Oldham). Her prettiness and Carnaby Street style made her a beguiling denizen of the Swinging ’60s scene in London.
But that dainty exterior gave way to struggles with drug addiction, homelessness, and general periods of life in which Faithfull was adrift. She was a woman in danger of being forgotten and one of the many who lost themselves. She would transcend the “girl singer” label and become a far more elusive thing: a muse. Her association with Mick Jagger would find itself throughout the Rolling Stones’ output. Her life was plunged into a series of tragedies, her dark demons permanently imprinting themselves on her voice. When she released her seventh album, 1979’s Broken English, a new voice and sound emerged from Faithfull. You see, her lovely timbre was destroyed forever, replaced by a gorgeous, ravaged death rattle. She didn’t croon anymore; instead, she possessed a shipwreck of a voice, staining her pained and candid lyrics like cold, stale coffee.
Undoubtedly, Broken English is a landmark album, and it created a legend. But, unlike the triumphant comeback of Tina Turner, a fellow rock goddess who endured wretched personal tragedies, Faithfull’s comeback was blurred by devastated decadence. There would be no feel-good victories for her on the stage of the Grammys. MTV would be somewhat diffident to her. Pop radio wouldn’t welcome her with open arms.
Instead, Faithfull’s comeback would be an artistic one and one that was heralded by cult audiences of devotees who embraced her destroyed creativity. But she wasn’t done growing. Broken English was a grimy New York record that found textures and sounds in post-disco dance, rock, new wave, and punk-influenced dance-rock. However, she would graduate to yet another persona, one that would match perfectly with her glottal croak. She became a rock and roll Dietrich. A rock and roll Lotte Lenya. She found a new career—yet again—as a chanteuse. She was able to create a sound that married rock and art music. Songs by Bertolt Brecht, Noel Coward, and Kurt Weill were perfect for Faithfull’s style because those dark, dank stories came alive when sung with her inimitable rasp.
So, by the 2000s, Faithfull became a pop icon. An institution. Of course, the problem with being an institution is that it implies the former glories of the past. It implies nostalgia. But Faithfull isn’t an oldies act. Her continuous evolution in sound means she’s still restless in her older age, still wanting to do more. And doing more means looking to younger artists for inspiration. For her 16th album, 2002’s Kissin Time, she finds herself adapting her sound (this time, working with electronic and indie rock musicians).
Yet, this isn’t a case of a self-entombed artist struggling to be hip. Rather, the artists who lined up to work with her—Beck, Jarvis Cocker, Dave Stewart, Billy Corgan, and Étienne Daho—work with her legend, placing it in a new, shinier context. After all, when one works with Marianne Faithfull, one doesn’t just work with a recording artist, but history as well. Faithfull tells stories of hard-lived, exciting, and complex lives when she sings.
When those histories are engaged, Kissin Time highlights the specific sonic beauty of crossing the musical generation gap. An artist like Dave Stewart, who has a prolific and remarkable musical past of his own, finds empathy with Faithfull on the lilting “Song for Nico” (an homage to the late iconic Velvet Underground singer). It’s clear that Faithfull shares some sisterly feelings with Nico. “I always liked Nico”, Faithfull once said in an interview for VH1. “And I loved the way she didn’t take notice of anybody and just went on and didn’t care.” Shen then corrected herself: “I mean, she did care, but she just pretended not to care.”
The two women shared many similarities (namely, possessing strange, misunderstood voices that often hid and obfuscated vulnerability and sadness). Stewart and Faithfull’s lyrics give listeners a quick recap of Nico‘s life, particularly how it brushed up against the pop art movement as well as the 1960s rock revolution (a time that saw both women witness and live through some heady times). Stewart places this sad poem to a lush, glossy synthpop ballad that’s reminiscent of his work with Annie Lennox in the Eurythmics.
It’s that history that Smashing Pumpkins leadman Billy Corgan taps into on his collaboration with Faithfull: on a cover of ’60s pop chestnut “Something Good”. A big hit for British Invasion act Herman’s Hermits, it was the kind of Brill Building pop number that she could have recorded in her early career. On the record, Faithfull’s voice is lightly sweetened and filtered, and she delivers the song in a dreamy girl group affectation. Although the production is decidedly modern (with churning synths and drum loops), the arrangement feels like an affectionate hug to the sounds of the bygone era. It’s a witty way for the record to reference Faithfull’s ’60s pop past but in a contemporary way.
Corgan seems to share the best chemistry with Faithfull on Kissin Time, as their work towers over the other tracks. (One would’ve hoped that he might write a whole album for her, just like Jack White did with Loretta Lynn for their 2004 collaboration, Van Lear Rose.) Smashing Pumpkins are known for their guitar rock, but one of their best records is 1998’s Adore. Adore is a thick, dense album of gorgeous electronic rock, moving away from the band’s alternative rock sound. He brings much of that lush synth-driven music to his work on Kissin Time, yet he jettisons the gothic darkness. On “Wherever I Go”, the two performers make lovely music together. The lyrics are sweet, and it’s quite disarming to hear them on a tune that works on simple sweet charm.
The greatest track in the set is Corgan’s “I’m on Fire”. A shuffling, dirge-like hymn, the song is a stunner. The songwriting touches upon regret and speaks to Faithfull’s vocal weariness and sage wisdom. It’s a piece cluttered with sound but is also emotionally naked. Despite Faithfull’s vocal range being limited (wizened and tightened by age and hard living), she pushes her voice on the song’s climax, singing, “And so time passed / I began to change / I found that I / could love again!” Clearly, she conveys a beguiling optimism that belies her history.
Though his work isn’t as startling as Corgan’s, Beck finds a way to bring his electrofunk and indie rock pretensions to Faithfull. On the excellent “Sex with Strangers”, especially, he creates a fantastic dance song via a stuttering, funky collage of soulful bass, ’80s synth pops, and drum machines. Faithfull recites the lyrics regally, and the whole thing is an excellent callback to her disco-laced Broken English work.
With the winding ballad “Nobody’s Fault”, Beck sets Faithfull’s voice in a collapsing baroque-pop soundscape that seems on the verge of caving in. A stumbling piano barely keeps up with lumbering beats, while a classical guitar is a fragile and frayed thread that barely holds everything together. Prior to that, “Like Being Born” has Beck moving closer to Faithfull’s sound. It’s a thoughtful, moody indie-folk tune that references her ’60s work.
Britpop mainstay Pulp are responsible for another high point on Kissin Time. Re-imagining Faithfull as a New Romantic singer, the band juxtaposes her grainy voice against the smooth, slick new wave production. There’s an element of dancefloor joy to the song, and it points to a direction that Faithfull could have pursued. Pulp’s Britpop compatriots do an equally impressive job with the title track, a catchy, swinging bluesy number that features some excellent instrumentation. The song sounds like a brilliant way to insert Faithfull into millennial indie rock.
Despite being one of her better records, Kissin Time is a curious outlier in Faithfull’s prolific discography. Her subsequent releases were collections of art songs and rock ballads; hence, she didn’t revisit this album’s shiny, deliberately modern sounds. Kissin Time was the sole moment in her later recording career in which Faithfull allowed her musical collaborators to shape her sound. While she’s not a cipher on the record, she wouldn’t take such a massive leap in her recording career again. That’s a real shame because Kissin Time is a fascinating curiosity.
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