Steve Wynn is a solo artist as well as a founding member of the Dream Syndicate, Gutterball and the Baseball Project. Read/listen more at www.stevewynn.net and his Facebook page.
There is a point late in Marianne Faithfull’s new album Give My Love to London when everything comes into focus. But that moment almost feels like an afterthought, an Easter egg of intent and a gentle mission statement, offered with a shrug.
I’ll back up a few steps. I’m a big fan of Marianne’s 1979 album Broken English, which is one of the most naked, ravaged, lashing, bruised, simultaneously beaten-down yet defiant records you’re likely ever to hear. With a backstory of broken romance and the high life gone awry, it is a record that matched her public battles and ragged voice in a way that left no possibility that she was just a poseur playing the role of the damaged chanteuse. For proof, just listen to the closer “Why’d Ya Do It.”
From her earliest connections to the Rolling Stones and other leading lights of Swinging London, she’s never had any trouble drawing deep, dark talent to her records. This time around the charge is led by Nick Cave and his collaborator Warren Ellis, as well as Roger Waters, Steve Earle, Brian Eno, Ed Harcourt and Tom McRae, among others.
It’s as though everybody wants a crack at painting his or her own version of Marianne’s carnival of despair. Step right up to the Dunk Tank of Misery! But it’s worth noting that the best examples of this template in the past came in the form of her somewhat rare co-authored songs, including the aforementioned “Broken English” and “Why’d You Do It.” It would only seem to make sense that Faithfull’s vocal venom is most lethal when fortified by the injection of her own words.
Nonetheless, her collaborators on this record quite gamely try their hand at matching the myth on powerful songs like “True Lies” (a collaboration between Marianne, Harcourt and producer Dimitri Tikovoï) and “Mother Wolf” (co-written by Marianne and songwriting pro Patrick Leonard), two of the more exciting songs on the record. On the latter, the singer has a field day with lines like “The filth that comes out of your mouth/I will not listen to/You treat your dog better than we treat each other.” And the music jabs and lurches like a prizefighter working out to a kinder, gentler version of “The Mercy Seat” by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. It’s a strong track, but it doesn’t quite jar, scare, disturb or connect the way it should.
The music on the record is lush and accomplished, often evoking, in fact, a distaff version of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. But it also feels like a game attempt by her collaborators to live up to a standard that the singer set herself, which can’t be matched by mere chops and professionalism. We want blood, we want tears (as they go by, naturally) and we want the scratched, raw words that can live up to that voice.
And that’s not fair. She’s not our monkey, not our circus animal, not a sleight of hand magician in a traveling sideshow. But after an album of waiting for the knockout punch — one almost thrown by the venom of “Mother Wolf,” which still feels, however, more like an exercise than an exorcism — she lays out her hand on the penultimate song. It’s a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Going Home,” a somewhat lost song of his, but also one of his best, the leadoff track from 2012’s Old Ideas, an album that got lost amidst the hallelujahs and his own tower of song. It might be the one track on which Faithfull lays herself out nakedly and breaks through the craft and studied execution.
In Leonard’s version he takes the voice of God (a character who just doesn’t get enough first-person turns in song) as he admires and worries about Leonard, “a lazy bastard in a suit.” In Marianne’s version, she is herself, showing the same concerns about a peer, a pal, a contemporary and maybe, in a way, herself. But the key ideas of the song, especially in the context of Give My Love to London, come in these lines:
“He wants to write a love song
An anthem of forgiving
A manual for living with defeat
A cry above the suffering
A sacrifice recovering
But that isn’t what I need him
I want him to be certain
That he doesn’t have a burden
That he doesn’t need a vision
That he only has permission
To do my instant bidding
Which is to say what I have told him
It’s a beautiful moment, and a reminder that an artist who has made a career of plumbing the depths, of being a lyrical whipping post for those who cannot dare to express such things themselves, deserves nothing more in the final act than to release, relax and revel in her own craft, adulation and history, and then let go, a final wisdom of its own and a beauty to behold. It doesn’t always make for the best art — and Give My Love to London is good listening, sometimes exciting, though far from essential — but it does make for a good visit with an old friend.