The word ‘survivor’ was probably created for Marianne Faithfull. A true rock original, Faithfull lived what feels like a thousand lives, starting as a fresh-eyed ingenue in the 1960s, trilling lovely folk-pop tunes, eventually turning into the whiskey sour-throated chanteuse, recalling Marlene Dietrich and Lotte Lenya. Her voice thickened and wizened into a raspy, crumbling growl. Its stunning beauty lies in its ugliness. Faithfull’s singing gives voice to world-weary wariness.
She not only applied her distinct instrument to self-penned songs, but she also found success interpreting the works of Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Weill, Bob Dylan, and Noël Coward. For her 20th studio album, Faithfull turns to other classic writers; this time, though, she zeroes in on English Romantic poets. She takes on that towering canon, reciting the works of Byron, Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth, Tennyson, and Hood. Accompanying Faithfull is Warren Ellis of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Ellis creates an ambient, shimmery environment for Faithfull to deliver these classic poems, her gravelly, throaty voice a warm and heart-breaking vehicle for the words.
Though she doesn’t sing a note on She Walks in Beauty, the record is easily one of her best of her long and storied career. The repertoire allows the singer to imbue the songs with the gravitas and heartache that she’s brilliant at expressing. Though she has been rightly feted as a masterful songstress, she’s also a wonderful stylist and an accomplished actress. She employs these talents on the album, finding the majesty and bruised heart of the poetry she reads.
There’s an aching beauty to She Walks in Beauty, mainly due to the elegiac work of Ellis and the destroyed presence of Faithfull. He places his collaborator on sweeping, subtle washes of synths, mournful strings, and strumming mandolins. The record was released during the pandemic, one that nearly took Faithfull away. She has mentioned in the press that she isn’t sure she’ll ever be able to sing again. Her voice – already a ravaged instrument – is further twisted with age, but that adds pathos to her masterful performances.
The album opens with the title piece, Lord Byron’s paean to great beauty. Faithfull’s rendition is poignant, a woman who started her career as a model-like songbird – her fresh-faced English rose prettiness which later was replaced by a more ravaged beauty. When her crackling voice waxes rhapsodic of “… that cheek…that brow / So soft, so calm, yet eloquent / The smiles that win” and of a face ‘Where thoughts serenely express / How pure, how dear their dwelling-place”, she could be channeling visions of her young, serene beauty. The contrast of the poetic rasp intoning about young beauty is very potent. Byron is revisited with a stunning rendition of “So We’ll Go No More a Roving”, which starts with a moving introduction with a stark, melancholic violin – it’s reminiscent of Henryk Górecki- that matches the devastating resignation in her performance.
She takes on the grim story in Thomas Hood’s “Bridge of Sigh”, which tells the tragic tale of a woman who throws herself off a bridge. Hood’s lyrical account is given the appropriate amount of sorrow and grief by both Faithfull and Ellis, who seem inspired by the sheer misery of the themes explored in the poem. As the description gets darker and sadder, Faithfull imparts a deep sympathy and empathy to the woman of the story, mining her tumultuous past.
The best of She Walks in Beauty engages with Faithfull’s history as well as her awful past year. Not all of the poems are sad or tragic, but her frayed voice gives pathos to every line reading. Even a gorgeous, pastoral work like Keats’ “To Autumn” has a profundity born out of Faithfull’s age and fragility – suddenly, the description of the passing year takes on a deeper meaning, working as a metaphor for aging. There’s also an unintended, dark irony in the inclusion of “To Autumn”, as it was Keats’ last poem before he stopped writing poetry and shortly after, he succumbed to tuberculosis. Though Faithfull survived her bout with the COVID, it’s unclear whether she’ll fully recover and whether she’ll record again.
Some will approach She Walks in Beauty with some disappointment. Faithfull doesn’t sing, and Ellis’ instrumentation flirts with Eno-esque prettiness, not to mention that the production does make all of the songs blend, but it’s a record that is perfectly tuned to its time. It’s an album that captures the sad, reflective mood of the country – and the world – and if it is the end of Faithfull’s recording career, then it’s an apt period to a very long and moving sentence.