Before The Poison
o it turns out that what Marianne Faithfull, nearly sixty and making music for the past forty years, really needed was PJ Harvey and Nick Cave. Her recent offerings haven’t exactly been trainwrecks, but they have verged on the boringly worthy. What’s different here probably isn’t just the excitement of working with new blood; Kissin’ Time had her teamed up with Beck and Jarvis Cocker. But on Before The Poison Harvey and Cave inject a little more grit into the proceedings, and it all falls intro place; although the music here isn’t miles away from parts of Uh Huh Her or The Lyre Of Orpheus this is still overwhelmingly Faithfull’s album, and it’s great.
Actually, one song here is technically from Uh Huh Her; on that album, “No Child Of Mine” was a mere interlude, a pleasant enough minute devoted to a rollicking beat and old-timey lyrics. For Faithfull, Harvey has preceded the original song with another five minutes, and when the grand, sweeping wail of the new song segues smoothly into handclaps and guitar strum it feels perfectly natural. The original felt fairly flippant or at least not terribly bereft; the other five minutes unsurprisingly puts a different spin on things.
In fact, the only complaint I have is that it’s stuck in the middle of the album rather than where it should be, at the end. I’m fairly certain time stops when I listen to “No Child Of Mine,” and having the album just keep going after that seems like temerity. Yes, it’s a small point, and luckily the second half of Before The Poison is just as strong as the first, but it’s hard not to hit the pause button for a minute afterwards. The sequencing is otherwise excellent, and the fact that I even mention this indicates the strength of all the material here.
It’s worth noting that this version of “No Child Of Mine” probably wouldn’t have worked as well for Harvey, nor would the other four songs she either wrote outright or collaborated on here. Faithfull’s voice is still throaty but is in better shape than it has been, or at least is in more sympathetic circumstances (even on the stomping “Desperanto,” where Cave layers chants of “Everybody loves my baby” and Warren Ellis’ violin screech under probably the sexiest thing Faithfull has put her voice to in five years or so), and there’s a wisdom and depth of emotion in her singing that isn’t just connected to years. These are often songs of regret, but complex, layered regret; when Harvey and Faithfull mournfully intone “Go home, find your own way” on “No Child Of Mine” or Faithfull exhorts “When you remember who I am, just call” on “There Is A Ghost” there’s a bitter sweetness that is often overlooked by singers in favor of outright pathos. And when things go bad, as on the title track and Damon Albarn’s “Last Song,” the cracks in Faithfull’s voice and the weight of her performance lend a genuinely apocalyptic air to the songs.
Although a few of the tracks here lurch towards rock, mostly this set is quieter, and eventually the album winds down with Jon Brion’s contribution, the lovely music box-assisted “City Of Quartz.” There aren’t as many fireworks here, even on “Desperanto,” as there were on “Why'd Ya Do It,” but what’s here instead may be even more satisfying. Will Self’s introductory essay makes Faithfull sound scary, self-excoriating, and liable to strip the flesh from your skeleton. Instead, there’s emotional complexity wrapped around tough and tender music that fits Faithfull’s justly famous voice like a glove. Before The Poison isn’t flashy, and it’s likely to get overlooked, but it may just be the single best album Marianne Faithfull has ever put her name to.