Marianne Faithfull & Warren Ellis She Walks in Beauty BMG
Marianne Faithfull has long occupied a singular position in the history of pop music. Both her life and career have been unbelievable, from breaking out as the 60s countercultural starlet singing As Tears Go By, to the phoenix-rising-from-the-ashes death disco of Broken English, to her current spot as the legendary doyenne of British rock. While her songwriting skills are beyond compare, culturally, some of her most impactful work has been through the words of others; most famously, the Jagger/Richards-penned Tears. But her entire discography is peppered with references to literature, be it poems, sonnets, odes or other flourishes of the pen. The lyrics to her sexually incendiary 1979 track Why D’Ya Do It? were written by poet Heathcote Williams, and Epilogue, the last song on 1995’s A Secret Life, is an interpolation of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. A sizable aspect of Faithfull’s talent as an artist is her ability to completely embody these works and make them her own, and nowhere has she put those skills to the test like on She Walks in Beauty, her collaborative album of poetry with composer Warren Ellis.
An homage to her lifelong love of the English Romantics, She Walks in Beauty is a compilation of some of Britain’s greatest poets; we’re talking Keats, Shelley, Byron, Wordsworth. Reading poetry aloud is always a remarkably daunting task, even with poems as famous and timeless as these. What seems so eloquent on the page can sound mushy and mangled when spoken – the rhyming gets in the way of the emotion, or the reader trips over the pentameter. What Faithfull accomplishes here, to great success, is the deep, lush and honeyed delivery of every line, gliding swanlike across Ellis’ ambient instrumentation with nary a ripple.
Every line feels lived in by Faithfull personally, even though the words are centuries old. When she speaks of the woefully perished woman of Thomas Hood’s The Bridge of Sighs (“Touch her not scornfully/ Think of her mournfully/ Gently and humanly/ Not of the stains of her”), it’s hard to not see the parallel between Faithfull’s own storied struggles with addiction, image and fame, and the ghostly woman fished from the river, deserving of more. On all the tracks, Faithfull is not only the reader, but she is also the poet, and this reinterpretation of the source material makes She Walks in Beauty much more than just a collection of some of Faithfull’s favourite works. It’s a living, breathing story, spoken by a woman who has seen it all.
Ellis’ production is sublime, supported at points by Nick Cave’s piano, Brain Eno’s synths, and Vincent Ségal’s cello – this roundtable of revered talent elevates the musical aspect of the recordings from a mere ambient background score to an intricate, alluringly mellow album in its own right.
The marriage of these two halves create a whole that, on paper, could seem like a vanity project by musicians with a bit too much time on their hands. Nothing could be further from the truth. She Walks in Beauty joins the rest of Faithfull’s discography as a culmination of a lifetime of appreciation for both the written word and the sacred space of true artistic partnership. A pen dipped in dark ink, punctuating an unflinchingly unique career.