REVIEW BY: Mark Millan
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 09/16/2009
Marianne Faithfull almost died in 1986 from what turned out to be the last shot of heroin she ever took. This finally put to rest an astonishing seventeen year addiction that began as her relationship with Mick Jagger came to a slow and painful end while the ‘60s drew to a close.
The mid-‘80s were another challenging time for Faithfull, and while her latest overdose was not an attempted suicide, it very nearly did her in just the same. Her most recent studio album, the criminally underrated A Child’s Adventure, failed miserably, and its successor Rich Kid Blues (recorded in 1971) failed to make amends upon its belated release in 1985. Just before her overdose, Marianne was working on new songs for her next album when Island rather hastily pulled the plug on that project, leaving its creator with a somewhat bleak-looking future.
One good thing among all of this gloom came out of 1985. Marianne recorded a song for an album in tribute to the music of Kurt Weill and Bertholt Brecht, which was produced by Hal Willner. The response to the album by contemporary artists was positive, and Willner even suggested to Marianne the idea of recording a full album of Weill/Brecht compositions. Although he never thought it would materialize after Marianne recovered from her episode, she needed something to do and having had her latest project shafted, it seemed like the perfect solution.
Once Willner and Faithfull began selecting songs for the project, it was decided that the works of Weill and Brecht would not be the only songs covered. The album would also be a chance for Marianne to record songs of her contemporaries that she had long admired, and there were a couple of new songs as well. Still, it was (as later told by Faithfull) too soon after her overdose to do any writing of her own; she was far too raw and emotionally scarred for that.
On paper it sounds like an impossible task, one that would meet the same fate as her last three releases: failure. But for once the gods were on her side, and what Marianne and Hal came up with is an absolute masterpiece (if not the darkest album ever recorded). Marianne’s voice had become even deeper and more cracked than before, which gave the overall album a gloomy ambience.
The disc opens with the Dubin/Warren standard “Boulevard Of Broken Dreams,” which instantly sets the tone for what is to come. It’s given the full ‘30s jazz arrangement, and Faithfull gives her all, sounding every bit the downtrodden jazz singer. Next is the most curious inclusion here, the old blues cut “I Ain’t Goin’ Down To The Well No More.” Marianne digs deep for this one, singing right at the bottom of her range. It’s a capella and leads beautifully into “Yesterdays,” a standard first recorded by Billie Holiday, murdered by Frank Sinatra, and resurrected here by Faithfull, who makes it her own.
Willner’s production here and throughout is perfect. There’s plenty of room for Faithfull to discover and deliver each and every nuance seemingly without much effort at all. “Sign Of Judgment” is just Marianne backed by an acoustic guitar, and again she delivers the old world lyrics with startling conviction.
Next up is the centerpiece of the record, its title-track. The haunting blues of Tom Waits’ “Strange Weather” finds Marianne channeling her inner Dietrich as she warbles her way through the morbid lyrics: “And here’s the rain that they predicted / It’s the forecast every time / The rose has died because you picked it / And I believe the brandy’s mine.” Waits wrote the song especially for Marianne after she uttered the “brandy” line during a flight they were sharing once.
The lush piano blues/jazz (as played by Dr. John) of “Love, Life, And Money” is a departure from the previous tracks, but Faithfull gives a wonderful performance that leaves you wanting more of the same. Dylan’s “I’ll Keep It With Mine” is next up, and it fits right in. The arrangement and mood created here has more in common with Nico’s original recording than either version by Dylan himself.
“Hello Stranger,” written by Doc Pomus and Dr. John, brings the album into the ‘80s with a great blues pop arrangement. The gloriously faithful rendition of “Penthouse Serenade” suits Marianne’s cracked voice down to the ground. There’s a string section added for this one, and its old world charm in enchanting as ever. This is followed by the Jagger/Richards track “As Tears Go By,” which happened to be Faithfull’s first major release. Gone is the swinging pop of the original; Faithfull here delivers the song in a slower time signature and a much deeper voice. This is the definitive version, hands down.
The disc draws to a close with “Stranger On Earth,” penned by Ray Charles’ longtime collaborator Sid Feller. Once again, Marianne puts her nicotine-stained pipes to good use, delivering her lines with a cocky swagger that only she could get away with.
This album is dark and morbid, unforgivingly so. Never has a woman since Billie Holiday sounded so torn, tattered, and without hope. Faithfull gave an astonishing performance here, and although at the time she was not rewarded for it, this album has grown in stature and become another classic work for her. It sealed her reputation as a masterful interpreter and gave an indication of what was to come.