Vagabond Ways

Marianne Faithfull

IT Records, 1999

REVIEW BY: Mark Millan


Following a rather lengthy period removed from the rock world and exploring her obsession with the Weimar Republic (yielding two great albums and a world tour), Marianne Faithfull tuned herself back into the contemporary music scene and was bemused by what she heard. It seemed that everyone from her contemporaries (Bob Dylan and Neil Young) to her newly discovered favorites (Nick Cave and PJ Harvey, among several) were into dark, moody, atmospheric songs, resulting in an array of dark albums that were dark enough to rival even some of Faithfull’s own haunting ditties.

This was, however, music to her ears and Marianne decided her next studio album would be the darkest one to date. Faithfull hired Daniel Lanois to produce and went to California to begin sessions for what would become the gloriously dark, complex, ballad-laden Vagabond Ways.  This release is a wonderful mix of Faithfull originals and well-chosen covers penned by some of rock’s craftiest songwriters. Lanois’ production is brilliant throughout in achieving the somber atmosphere that this material requires. Marianne’s voice has never sounded better, employing a technique of smooth crooning that greatly enhances these morbid ballads.

The title track opens the record with the lines, “I drink and I take drugs / I love sex and I move around a lot.” Here Faithfull was singing about her young self, addressing her past in a way she never had before; however, in this story our heroine didn’t make it: “It was a long time ago, they took her child away and she was sterilized / She died of the drink and the drugs.” 

Marianne once asked Roger Waters at a party if he had a song she could record, and he came back a short time later with a eerie demo of “Incarceration Of A Flower Child.” Never has a cut been more suited to Faithfull than this particular one. While Waters insists the song is about a relationship breaking up and the woman going mad, Marianne believes he wrote it about Syd Barrett’s decline into complete insanity. Whatever the story, it is hauntingly effective in the hands of Faithfull and Lanois and is easily one of Waters’ most inspired moments.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Next, we have a trio of songs penned by Faithfull and her partner-in-crime Barry Reynolds.  “File It Under Fun From The Past” again sees Marianne revisiting her younger days, this time evoking a more sarcastic reading of the cynical lyric. “Electra” harbors a more Irish flavor, being that the pair wrote it with their pal Irish poet, Frank McGuiness. It’s another one of Faithfull’s enchanting character studies, this time of a mysterious vixen who “trades in piracy and sinning.”

“Wilder Shores Of Love” is the centerpiece of this album and hands-down one of Marianne’s greatest songs ever. A stunningly depressive lyric is given life by an equally morbid delivery by Faithfull as Lanois weaves a beautifully sweeping arrangement around each poignant verse.  Lanois’ own “Marathon Kiss” is probably the record’s most hopeless (lyrically) moment, which Faithfull revels in (“Don’t steal what I’ve got baby / ’Cause it’s hardly enough for myself”); no one does hopeless better than she does. 

Next up is “For Wanting You” (penned by Elton John and Bernie Taupin), which is the disc’s most obscure moment. The lyric is quite unnerving and violent, which again Faithfull matches with a twisted reading backed by a piano and some haunting strings for maximum effect.  “Great Expectations” is the one track written by Faithfull and Lanois together, and it’s one of the strongest moments here, finding Marianne again pondering her past: “If I could tell my story in a song / I’d have to make it fast, yes, it’s very long.” 

A masterful reworking of Leonard Cohen’s “Tower Of Song” follows and almost steals the show – it’s that good. Faithfull is at her cynical best cutting her way through the downtrodden lyrics. The record’s closer is a curious poem by McGuiness set to a signature Lanois arrangement that brings all of the darkness to a even darker place. No happy endings here, and although it saps all life out of the experience, it works so well for Faithfull that it strangely left me wanting more of the same.

Vagabond Ways is a superbly crafted album of alt-rock balladry that reflects the darker side of the human psyche. It’s heavy listening, and although her performance is perfect in every way, Faithfull never performs these songs during live shows anymore (except for “Incarceration Of A Flower Child”). Too morbid for even one of her own gigs, no doubt. Still, this record is easily one of Marianne Faithfull’s greatest albums and oddly, it would serve as the perfect introduction to the lady herself for any novices out there. More so than any other of her latter day works, it articulates so well the best of what Faithfull has to offer, and that’s not always an easy thing to do.

Rating: A

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