REVIEW BY: Mark Millan
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 01/03/2009
By the time Marianne Faithfull began recording what would become her undisputed masterpiece, she had endured ten years of heroin addiction which lead to a period of her living homeless in Soho, the break-up of her marriage, the end of her affair with Mick Jagger, and her career dying a slow and very public death. Through all of this, Faithfull had continued to record and scored a surprise number one hit in Ireland with her version of “Dreaming My Dreams” in 1975.
Faithfull at some point moved to Chelsea and hooked up with Ben Brierley of punk outfit The Vibrators. It was this partnership and her collaboration with close pal Barry Reynolds that was the catalyst for sparking her departure from folk to fusing punk, New Wave and rock in writing her next album.
Fearing her life would soon be over as a result of her dreadful addiction, Faithfull set about recording her “final” album in early ‘79 with the intention of baring her soul and leaving behind a piece of work she could be proud of and that she felt would best express who she was. Much to her surprise, she didn’t die and thankfully is still with us producing great music and continuing her acting career, all the while fighting off breast cancer a couple of years back.
Broken English opens with the title track and immediately hits the mark. It’s a sparse electronic arrangement, heavily layered with synthesizers, and sets the tone for the album superbly. Lyrically driven by the misguided politics of various terrorist movements, it gets the point across now just as well as it did back then.
Next up is the acoustic gem “Witches’ Song,” which contains one of her most cryptic lyrics to date. It also showcases Faithfull’s “new” singing voice. By this point her pure tones of the ‘60s were long gone, as was her upper register. Her voice now was deeper, slightly cracked in places and battle-weary to say the least. It was now her great weapon in that as her writing became more personal, her delivery became much more real and totally believable, a gift few singers have.
“Brain Drain” is a haunting but enchanting number about life as an addict. This is followed by Barry Reynolds’ caustic “Guilt.” Essentially a collaboration between the writer and his muse, it’s inspired by their catholic upbringing and their mutual hatred for the respective educational institutions of their youth. The dark lyrics are given some light-hearted relief by Faithfull: “I never stole a scarf from Harrods / But if I did they wouldn’t miss it / I never stole a doll from Lovecraft / But if I did you know I’d kiss it.” It’s a theme the pair continued to explore on future albums.
“The Ballad Of Lucy Jordan” was originally recorded by soft rockers Dr. Hook, but upon hearing it Faithfull decided that a woman should narrate the life and times of Lucy, so she took her chance to record the song herself. It’s given a punchy synth-driven arrangement, and the lyrics of a broken woman as sung by Faithfull leave no doubt that this is the definitive version of this wonderful song.
“What’s The Hurry” again reflects Marianne’s desperate addiction; it’s the album’s most up tempo rocker and leads beautifully into “Working Class Hero.” John Lennon himself approved of this version and it’s no surprise. It far exceeds his original in both attitude and execution. The down-and-out Faithfull singing “There’s room at the top they are telling us still / But first we must learn how to smile as we kill” carries much more weight than the at times pretentious megastar Lennon.
The album closes with an explosion of profanity set to a grinding reggae-tinged arrangement. Faithfull had long wanted to record a song about the sexual jealousy and pain of being jilted by a lover. Upon hearing Heathcote William’s poem-like lyrics, she set about persuading him to allow her to use it for the album’s closer.
Williams, however, had desperately wanted Tina Turner to record the song, but he finally relented after being convinced by Faithfull that Turner would never in a million years even consider recording the song. It was a wise decision, because no one other than Marianne could have pulled it off. While I won’t quote any lyrics here, they cut to the very core of the dark side of human emotions. The envy, hatred, and downright anger that are prevalent when a lover strays are represented with equal parts of vitriol and (refreshing) honesty.
The success of this album put Faithfull back on the map and allowed her to continue to record and perform. While she would endure another eight years of addiction, she had with Broken English started the second phase of her career with explosive creativeness, all the while proving that her willingness to experiment was as prevalent as ever.
An all killer, no filler affair, Broken English remains her masterpiece and one of rock’s greatest ever albums. No record collection is complete without a well-worn copy of this one, a diamond in the rough by rock’s roughest diamond.
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