The first sign that Easy Come Easy Go (Decca), the new Faithfull-Willner collaboration, is different is plain on its face. The album’s front shows a drastically young-looking Faithfull, standing behind a drastically ancient-looking studio microphone, apparently expressing boundless devotion toward whatever it is she’s singing. The tones are muted brown, just past sepia. “12 Songs for Music Lovers,” reads a line below the title (“18 Songs …” on the two-disc British version)—just like a generic ’50s album of recent hits by any of the sort of sub-Tony Bennetts and Patti Pages who filled the record stores in those days. And the same sense of humor—of play—is at the heart of Faithfull’s first song, long before the set explodes all over the place with her outrageous duet with Antony (of Antony and the Johnsons) on the Miracles’ “Ooh Baby Baby.”The first song is Dolly Parton’s 1970 “Down from Dover.” There’s not exactly room for fun in it: The girl who’s singing keeps telling herself the man who got her pregnant is coming down from Dover, to save her, to give their baby a name, to give them a home, to marry her, to show that he hasn’t completely forgotten she exists, which her parents already have. She all but counts off the days, and finally the baby is coming, he’s not there, and the baby is born dead. You can’t sing this song without overdoing it; you can’t throw it away, not without condescending to it. You can’t make it into a pun by, say, dropping the signature riff from Petula Clark’s 1964 “Downtown” into it—and Faithfull’s performance of the song is so strong you may not immediately notice that that’s what she and Willner have done. “Down from Dover,” Faithfull keeps crying, quietly, as if this plea for deliverance is ordinary life, something that happens every day, as opposed to something that will never happen, and right in the middle of the song, mocking her, beckoning her, is the wordless invocation of “Downtown, downtown!”—precisely where, as Dolly Parton made clear a year before “Down from Dover,” in her unbearably soft “My Blue Ridge Mountain Boy,” the girl in this song will end up: downtown, on the street. As opposed to what they did on Strange Weather, Faithfull and Willner aren’t layering Faithfull’s own story over the song, to give the performance a legitimacy that is, you can hear, spurious almost to the degree that the song validates itself—in other words, to rob the song of its legitimacy in order to transfer it to the singer. They’re taking the song as territory to walk through, eyes open, listening, somehow leaving the singer and the territory changed when the passage is done.
That sort of transformation doesn’t happen every time, but it happens again and again, and in the most unpredictable ways. As I hear them, Morrissey’s “Dear God Please Help Me” and the Decemberists’ “Crane Wife 3,” both from 2006, never sounded like great songs—and Faithfull, on whose album they are irresistibly great, explains why. In both originals, you can hear the singers protect themselves against their own work. There’s a diffidence, a remove, a coldness—a bloodlessness—that leaves the songs abandoned by their creators.The Decemberists wrote “The Crane Wife 3”; Faithfull found it. There’s a lushness, a romanticism to her performance that translates into a desperation the Decemberists won’t permit themselves. Faithfull’s band—here especially guitarists Marc Ribot and Barry Reynolds, bassist Greg Cohen, and cellist Jane Scarpantoni—slowly draw out the rich melody, until you could be somewhere in Van Morrison’s “Sweet Thing,” every phrase suspended in the air, continuing to sound long after others have followed it and held their notes in turn. You begin to notice a second voice, buried deep behind Faithfull’s: not a dueting voice, but another texture, another instrument—in this case, Nick Cave. He’s less another voice than another bass—just as on Faithfull’s galvanic race through Neko Case’s “Hold On, Hold On,” her most immediately undeniable new recording, Cat Power’s whispers are more a second breath.
As the minimalist Decemberists refuse to give themselves over to their own melody, Morrissey refuses to give himself over to the terror in his song “Dear God Please Help Me.” As Morrissey sings it, a man is walking in Rome, he picks up another man, they find an alley, they have sex, and the man telling the story as it happens keeps calling out to God, as if to get him to say it’s all right: “Dear God, did this kind of thing happen to you?” It’s a prayer, with a big church organ—and finally it’s a cartoon.For Faithfull, this is actually happening. Every second seems separated from every other, because you hear the singer hesitating over every gesture, deciding to go forward, stepping back again. The big, melodramatic guitar riff that opens the song turns into ringing chords, and then there’s a kind of statement, a figure that draws a line and says, Go ahead, cross it.
The lyrics are stunning on the page, and somehow pro forma as Morrissey sings them. Faithfull draws herself across the lines as if they were a bed—or crawls over them as if they were rocks. “There are explosive kegs/Between my legs”—as the words come out of her mouth they don’t sound like a metaphor, and they don’t make an image. They leave you wondering, What’s going on? There’s a sudden sense of self-recognition, which turns into self-loathing. Something is going to happen but you aren’t sure you want to hear what it is—and when it does happen, it’s so vivid, so physically absolute, it’s as if you’re being forced to watch. “Now I’m spreading your legs,” Morrissey sings, but Faithfull gives up the control he won’t surrender, finding the real song that Morrissey, you can now imagine, was hiding: “Now he’s spreading my legs/With his/In between/Dear God, if I could/I would help you.” As Faithfull sings them, the words are so suffused with passion and confusion that what they say is not how they read. As you listen, you may feel a pagan echo of the stories of a woman who is fucked by God.
How do you follow that? On the longer version of the album, it’s followed by a variant of the folk-lyric mystery “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground,” here called “Kimbie”—based on a 1965 recording on the obscure American folksinger Jackson C. Frank’s sole album. The song is fearsome and strange, shifting back and forth between sex and destruction. “I wish I was a mole in the ground/Yes, I wish I was a mole in the ground/If I was a mole in the ground/I’d root that mountain down,” it usually begins. That’s how it was first recorded, in 1924, by the North Carolina lawyer and folklorist Bascom Lamar Lunsford. That’s how it’s been done by almost all of those who have sung it since, from Greenwich Village folkies in the ’50s and ’60s (“What was not a mistake,” Bob Dylan writes in his autobiography Chronicles. Volume One, speaking of pop music and folk music in 1961, when he arrived in New York, “was the ghost of Billy Lyons, rootin’ the mountain down, standing ’round in East Cairo, Black Betty bam be lam… That’s the stuff that could make you question what you’d always accepted”) to a Berkeley street singer and banjoist named Nancy Droppa, who sometimes puts it right next to “Big Rock Candy Mountain.” Then, conventionally, the tune moves on to a woman—“Kimbie,” or maybe not, depending on how you hear Lunsford say the name—who wants a nine-dollar shawl, whom the singer runs to with a forty-dollar bill in his hand. Then to prison, to railroad men who’ll “drink up your blood like wine,” to the verse “I wish I was a lizard in the spring/I wish I was a lizard in the spring/If I was a lizard in the spring/I’d hear my darling sing” (“If I was a lizard in your spring,” as the singer Bob Neuwirth changes it, or reveals it). Most singers begin as Lunsford did, with the rebellion, or the nihilism, of the mole in the ground who’d root that mountain down, and end as he did, with the first verse also the last, so that the woman who walks the ground the song stakes out seems at most a diversion. But Frank began with Kimbie and her shawl and stayed with her, right to the last verse, and only then did the mole poke its head out of the music.
So Faithfull sings it—and as she does so, the mole becomes more unfathomable than ever. The music couldn’t be lighter, the shaping of the song by Faithfull more commonplace, the appearance of the mole less portentous. It can go right by you, you can walk right past it, until, many playings later, maybe many months, you catch the specter of the uncanny hanging over the ordinary. “Well, I wisht I was a mole in the ground/I wisht I was a mole in the ground/I was a mole in the ground, and I’d tear, I’d tear, I’d tear this mountain down/Wisht I was a mole in the ground,” she sings—and, perhaps more than anyone before her, she sounds as if she’s already done so, again and again. You don’t hear her own long story bleeding through the lines; you hear a song bringing a singer knowledge of herself that she’s never had before—knowledge that you, no matter how well you might know the song yourself, never had either.
Artforum, May 2009