A Secret Life
REVIEW BY: Mark Millan
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 09/18/2009
In the early ‘90s, Marianne Faithfull took some time away from the music world to both recover from and reflect upon the rollercoaster ride of the previous decade. During this time, she continued acting and appeared in two films, When Pigs Fly and Shopping. It was also during this period that Faithfull had been listening to classical music exclusively, even ditching that of her idols, including Little Richard and Aretha Franklin. Recorded in 1994 in New York, this would serve as inspiration for her next two albums, which were a vast departure from her output in the ‘80s.
A Secret Life is another of those bridge records for Faithfull. This album saw her begin to experiment with classical orchestration, which would lead to her finally being able to bring two dream projects to life with 20th Century Blues and The Seven Deadly Sins released in 1996 and 1997, respectively. Both were byproducts of Faithfull’s lifelong obsession with the Weimar Republic.
For this record, though, Marianne chose famed composer Angelo Badalamenti to compose, orchestrate, and produce an album of songs to fit with her lyrics. The result is an intriguing collection of tunes, and although on a couple of songs the words and music blended perfectly, I feel that with the bulk of the album, the songs just don’t fulfill their potential. It had been thirteen years since Faithfull had released an album of original material, and in some respects, it shows here with her reverting to her first love, poetry, to form most of the album’s lyrics.
The disc is bookended by “Prologue” and “Epilogue,” neither of which was penned by Faithfull, but they create the right kind of vibe to introduce and close out the record. The second track “Sleep” was written in collaboration with Irish poet and longtime pal Frank McGuiness. It has a haunting arrangement that offers a rather cold backdrop for the slightly abstract lyrics. The most notable feature of the album at this point is, of course, Faithfull’s ever-changing voice, which is at its softest and smoothest on here.
That ravaged, angry alto that blasted its way through her live set Blazing Away has been replaced with a crooning, breezy, almost aloof delivery that really works with the material and would again serve as a precursor to the remarkable voice that would adorn her next two projects. “Love In The Afternoon” is the first song that really stands out, for all the right reasons. The track itself is catchy enough to be hummable long after hearing it, but at the same time it leaves all the focus on the lyrics, in which Faithfull is singing of an affair carried on by a housewife during daytime hours.
“Flaming September” is another highlight on the record for mostly the same reasons as the previous track. It’s one of the most contemporary tracks on the record, and again Faithfull is at her best when she’s telling a tale, however mysterious it may be. “She” is still among Faithfull’s personal favorites. It’s a great blues cut that Badalamenti transformed into a beguiling waltz to compliment Faithfull’s tale of a broken relationship.
“Bored By Dreams” is almost pop, and although it’s easy to digest, the lyrics itself are quite elusive. This one sounds like a throwaway song that turned out better than expected, so they put it on the record anyway; I still can’t warm to it despite having heard it hundreds of times over the years. “Losing” features the only other lyrics not penned by Faithfull and one of the more “traditional” arrangements, if you can call it that. It’s basically a poem with background music, and is clearly the album’s weakest link
“The Wedding” was again co-written with McGuiness, and it is the most fun on the record. The uptempo track is the perfect foil for the black-humored lyrics (“‘When you leave me, you’ll be sorry’ / Said the woman to the man / ‘When you leave me, I will haunt you’ / Said the woman to the man), and so it goes. The last proper song on the record, “The Stars Line Up,” is once again straightforward poetry, and although it sports the lushest arrangement here, it has no warmth to it and ultimately offers nothing truly memorable.
Most of the time, this release is hampered by some very cold orchestration on behalf of Badalementi searching for a certain ambience, reminiscent of his work for the TV series Twin Peaks. When is does work, however (“Flaming September” and “Love In The Afternoon” are easily the best), it offers a great alternative to what would have been pretty straightforward pop songs. I could also imagine Marianne doing “The Wedding” as a ferocious rocker in the guise of the now infamous “Why’d Ya Do It,” but it still works better than it should.
This record is a fine introduction into Marianne’s “classical” phase, but her next two albums would exceed this one in every way imaginable. A Secret Life then is not a truly memorable or great release, but it is still interesting to hear these two artists from different worlds mixing it up and trusting each other unconditionally. It is also a stark reminder of what an incredibly versatile singer Faithfull is, not to mention a testament to her constantly brave decisions to challenge herself and develop her craft. Marianne Fatifhfull has never played it safe, and A Secret Life is proof of that.