A stellar summation of a harrowing life and career.
There has always been a slightly tragic and emotionally damaged quality to the music and persona of Marianne Faithfull. Stretching all the way back to her mid-‘60s prime as Rolling Stones’ muse through to her harrowing struggles with drug addiction to her remarkable late-‘70s comeback Broken English, her mental and physical deterioration could be charted in both the tabloids and, with Broken English, her ravaged vocal chords. This drastic shift in vocal tonality, however, has since proven a better approximation of her inner struggles, now manifested outwardly in a battle-scarred voice of one having come through great personal turmoil only to be born anew, wizened and world-weary but still a creative force.
Negative Capability marks Faithfull’s 21st release in a career spanning more than 54 years and countless ups and downs, both personally and professionally. As before, this emotional upheaval has been the genesis for another profound artistic statement. And, unlike before, she shows a far more personal and emotionally vulnerable persona on record, her lyrics reflecting the sadness inherent in the loss of longtime friends like Anita Pallenberg and the isolation she feels living in her adopted city of Paris. The former is the centerpiece of the heartbreaking ballad “Born to Live” (“…to die a good death is my dream / And I wish it for all…I know and love”), while the latter receives her deepest sympathies in “They Come at Night,” a song written the wake of the attacks at the Bataclan.
“In My Own Particular Way” is the most affecting of these, Faithfull’s cracked croon pleading, “Send me someone to love / Someone who could love me back / Love me for who I really am / Not an image and not for money.” It’s a sentiment no doubt shared by many an aging celebrity, but Faithfull takes things one step further, lay out her current state of being, warts and all: “I know I’m not young and I’m damaged / But I’m still pretty, kind and funny in my own particular way.” It’s an emotionally resonant moment akin to Johnny Cash’s late-career reading of “Hurt,” the lyrics imbued with the lessons of a life lived hard and not necessarily always pretty.
As has been the case from the start, Faithfull supplements her own compositions with the works of others, all of which strike a similar thematic chord. Her read of “As Tears Go By” as a 71-year-old survivor is a far cry from the young ingenue and Rolling Stones’ protege, but it also feels far more lived-in, the words landing with a resonance her younger self could never have imagined. Similarly, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” takes on an entirely different meaning coming from the septuagenarian Faithfull than it did from a young Bob Dylan. Where his was a kiss-off, hers is something far more profound, more a contemplation of one’s mortality as seen from the December of one’s years.
Throughout, Faithfull is aided by a handful of musicians ranging from Nick Cave (who contributed music and vocals to the Shakespeare-influenced first single “The Gypsy Faerie Queen”) to Mark Lanegan (“They Come at Night”) and Ed Harcourt (“No Moon in Paris”). But it’s producers Rob and Warren Ellis who help shape the overall tone and feel of the album. The latter, a member of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, provides achingly beautiful violin parts that perfectly compliment Faithfull’s raw vocals and underlying emotion.
Negative Capability is another in a long line of impressive late-stage releases from artists often perceived as being well past their prime. Whether or not she offers us anything further in the future, Negative Capability should serve as as fine a closing statement as she could hope and a stellar summation of a harrowing life and career. A truly remarkable achievement.