The smoothest of voices became the most haggard after years of drug use and smoking. Consider the voice of the late Jimmy Scott with its Billie Holliday implications in tenor and tone. Marianne Faithfull’s voice is the voice of a woman who suffers for both her art and her sins. Like the voices of Bob Dylan and Lou Reed, the charm of Faithfull’s voice comes from the fact that her voice doesn’t seem like the voice of a professional singer. One of her strongest suits comes from what many would consider a profound weakness. Indeed, most of Faithfull’s charm comes from the very impression of a contradictory life.
As an icon of the 60’s set, Faithfull has also joined the list of divas that gay men in particular seem to be drawn to—although she seems to appeal to a more select clientele. All of the diva signs are there. She has suffered tragedy, substance abuse problems and turned around to deliver a larger-than-life stage presence. At 67, she still retains a sense of style and bravado that entices—a style that has not faded through the years or through adventures in reinvention.
‘As Tears Go By,’ her 1964 single that made her a star, was released when she was only 18. The smooth vocals and early easy-going vocals make the song a reliable example of a particular kind of British pop music of the era—not quite twee, not quite bubble gum, but hinting at something much deeper than the usual ‘He doesn’t love me’ sad-sack song. After a series of semi-successful albums, Faithfull was dropped by her label in 1967 and began a period of intense drugging. She was homeless on and off for two years. She went from using cocaine to using heroin and became anorexic while she lived on the streets. She returned to the recording studio to make Dreamin’ my Dreams (released in the USA under the much better title, Faithless)—an album of country music. (Thankfully, this album would be her last country record.)
Broken English, her 1979 comeback album, features one of the most amazing shifts in vocal tone and tenor in music history. By this point, Faithfull’s voice had developed the haggard, twisting aura that she retains to this day. ‘Why D’ya Do It?’ is arguably the highlight of the album—a reggae-influenced beat pared with a proto-rap style. The song features Faithfull screaming and ranting about a terrible breakup between a woman and a cheating man. Because of its explicit nature of the final track (‘Why d’ya do it? she said / Why d’ya let that trash / Get a hold of your cock / and get stoned on my hash?’) the album was banned in Australia.
By the 1990s, Faithfull had transformed herself into a chanteuse and cabaret performer, leading to 20th Century Blues, a live album released in 1997. The album primarily contains cover versions of songs written by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill—an author/composer team that produced some of the best dramas of the early 20th century. Faithfull’s voice is very similar to that of Lotte Lenya, Weill’s wife and an actress whose interpretations of Brecht’s characters still influence actresses today. The album features such Brechtian favourites as ‘Mack the Knife,’ ‘Alabama Song,’ ‘Pirate Jenny’ and ‘Solomon Song’—all of which come through with the dark intensity of her performances. It is, in my opinion, the best album of her career.
In 2008, she issued Easy Come, Easy Go, a collection of songs that show the passion of a voice that is both honey and vinegar at once, which was my introduction to her most recent style. ‘Children of Stone’ is my favourite recording of Faithfull’s over a long career. A mystical track, backed by a chorus of layered vocals by Rufus Wainwright, the ghostly nature of lost love comes through clearly. Faithfull’s voice sounds so beautiful in this recording, with the exchange between her and Wainwright, ballasting each other to new heights.
There have been many ups and downs—her life is a perfect representation of the cyclical nature of fame—in one moment and out the next. Her sad songs—all of which are wholly original in her versions—cry out to be listened to over and over again. For the past fifty years, Faithfull has been living up to her name. She is faithful as an entertainer, faithful as an icon, and faithful as a diva.
Her newest single, a teaser for her upcoming album, Give My Love to London, features Faithfull at her best and offers high hopes for the album, as well as Faithfull’s career.
Marianne Faithfull’s new album, Give My Love to London, will be released worldwide on 29 September, 2014.