Before The Poison
REVIEW BY: Mark Millan
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 09/29/2009
Although Marianne Faithfull had enjoyed the process of recording her 2002 album Kissin’ Time with an array of modern day electronica/pop artists, she was a little under whelmed by the technology offered in state-of-the-art recording studios and decided not to continue down that path. Instead, for her next venture, she would (in true Faithfull style) head in the complete opposite direction, piecing together an album the old-fashioned way. There would be no overdubs, Pro Tools, or multi-layered vocal tracks. This, of course, meant multiple takes, live recordings, and razor blades for editing.
Experienced exponents of this style of recording were needed, so Faithfull selected PJ Harvey and Nick Cave to serve as her main contributors. The pair had some history together and were not on speaking terms at the time, so Marianne accommodated them by always keeping their sessions separate so they wouldn’t cross paths. Harvey ended up co-writing and producing no less than five of the album’s ten songs; Cave did likewise for three tracks, working with Faithfull’s trusted producer Hal Willner.
The problem I have with Before The Poison is that too much of it sounds like a PJ Harvey record. On the opener “The Mystery Of Love,” their chemistry works and Faithfull sounds right at home with the stripped-back, raw sound that Harvey created. But on the more abstract numbers like “My Friends Have” and “In The Factory,” there’s zero chemistry, which kills off any chance of this album being at least consistent.
Faring slightly better is “No Child Of Mine,” which is a very dark Harvey poem that is right up Faithfull’s alley, since it closely resembles some of her own morbid lyrics. Best of all the Harvey/Faithfull tracks is easily the title-track, with which the pair finally hit pay dirt. “Before The Poison” is a dark, haunting song exploring the pain of loss and quite possibly the end of the world as we know it – vintage Faithfull this one.
So two and a half out of five ain’t bad, but it ain’t that good either, and as I alluded to before, Harvey’s cold, ragged arrangements don’t really do any favors for Faithfull at all. Marianne has an extensive bag of tricks and a wide range of choices at her disposal when it comes to bringing a lyric to life, but backed by Harvey’s uninspired ditties, she seems to have failed in finding the heart and soul of these songs – which is a shame, because that is exactly what Faithfull is so damn good at most of the time.
Nick Cave and his Bad Seeds fared much better in creating the right sounds for Marianne’s often dark and menacing lyrics. With the ballad “Crazy Love,” Cave wrote one of his most beautiful tunes, which happens to complement a true classic Faithfull lyric for which she drew inspiration from French director Marcel Carne’s 1945 masterpiece, Les Enfants Du Paradis. “There Is A Ghost” is a perfect blend of Cave and Faithfull’s shared ability to express lost love so hauntingly through their words and music. Her forlorn yearning is backed beautifully by Cave’s piano, his instrument of choice for moments like this.
The third song Cave provided a tune for is my favorite on the album, a curious, furious rocker by the name of “Desperanto.” Cave’s chugging, edgy arrangement is the perfect foil for Marianne’s caustic delivery of the bitter, twisted lyrics “Desperanto spoken here, today I hear it everywhere / It is the language of despair / It’s on your nails and it’s in your hair / It’s in your mouth instead of air.” By this point, it’s plainly obvious that an entire Faithfull/Cave album would have been the way to go.
On Kissin’ Time, Marianne worked with Damon Albarn, and the pair again joined forces here and came up with what is easily the most poignant song on the record in “Last Song.” Faithfull wrote the lyric about her perception of the end of England and its bleak future: “We saw the green fields, turn into homes / Such lonely homes.” It’s this sentiment that Faithfull is expressing with the cover shot of her presenting a child with an uncertain future.
The album closes with a strange little song that Marianne wrote with producer Jon Brion called “City Of Quartz.” Musically, it’s charming enough with the soundtrack being a music-box to contrast with another horribly dark lyric of Faithfull’s: “Citadel, a prison of sorts / Only the rich make the laws / Using repression and force / Whore of Babylon, city of quartz.” Although it bears a familiar message, musically, it doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the material here and possibly could have found a more suited home on another record altogether.
Although Before The Poison has been heralded as a Faithfull classic by many a scribe, for me, too many lackluster tracks courtesy of Ms. Harvey hamper its potential. The stripped-down and raw quality of the record suite Marianne’s voice and style, but the patchy material at times leaves her sounding slightly confused herself, which is not a common problem for her. Having said that, this is by no means a bad record because when its good, it’s very, very good, and it does contain some of Marianne’s darkest and most prolific lyrics.