I went through the obligatory Jim Morrison phase when I was 15. I bought every record The Doors ever released and studied them furiously, but I rarely listened to L.A. Woman, their final album as a band. It was hard to deny the rollicking zeal of “Love Her Madly” or the desert highway allegory of “Riders On The Storm,” but I couldn’t stand what had happened to Jim’s voice. He supposedly adored his new drug-, cigarette-, and alcohol-ravaged voice and the resulting raspy tones that were ideal for the kind of blues songs he’d always wanted to sing, but I’d seen the Oliver Stone movie and I’d read all the books. L.A. Woman might be one of the best swan songs ever, but that gravely voice is a symbol of impending doom, promises unfulfilled, and death in a Paris bathtub.
A decade later I discovered the music of Marianne Faithfull and was immediately struck by the similarities between Sister Morphine and the Lizard King. Morrison was never as angelic or traditional as Faithfull was in the ‘60s, but those voices—shredded by years of substance abuse and more than a handful of infamous love affairs—could have been telling the very same story. The difference is that Morrison succumbed to his indulgences while Faithful became a survivor, rendering her dry alto less sad than seasoned. Still, from her sweet yet somber covers of The Beatles’ “Yesterday” and The Mamas and the Papas’ “Monday Monday,” to her forays into blues, Americana, and synth-laden pop, a palpable sadness has always pervaded. And not since Broken English, Faithfull’s 1979 comeback, has this been more true.
You can see the faint purplish hue of bruises all over the exterior of her new album Before The Poison, which, like 2002’s Kissin’ Time, features a slew of high-profile collaborators, including PJ Harvey and Nick Cave. Regardless of whether or not she wrote the lyrics (three tracks were composed entirely by Harvey), Faithfull provides the flesh and blood to her partners’ sonic bones. She tries to wrap her head (and voice) around the machinations of love on the opening track “Mystery Of Love,” alternately questioning longing and doubt, and equates a hazy romantic/professional relationship with suburban sprawl on the creaky “Last Song,” co-written by Blur’s Damon Albarn.
Recent world events simmer beneath the surface of songs like “Crazy Love,” one of three tracks featuring longtime producer Hal Willner, and the Harvey-produced title track, the pre-9/11 complacency of which is perhaps a bit unfocussed. More elegant and refined is the elegiac “In The Factory,” the Cave-helmed “There Is A Ghost,” and the lullabyish closing song “City Of Quartz,” which seemingly takes jabs at one or more of the world’s “charming” and “handsome” leaders: “Citadel, prison of sorts/Only the rich make the laws/Using repression and force.” Still, Before The Poison is a markedly personal record, earmarking another chapter in Faithfull’s 40-year career. Her fresh, trembling soprano may have been replaced with the voice of a life lived, but she’s reaching for new heights…even if she doesn’t always hit the note.