Marianne Faithfull, ‘Broken English’ (01/24/80)

Marianne Faithfull had her first hit, a big one, in 1964, with “As Tears Go By” (written by her lover, Mick Jagger, with Keith Richards), but it was never as a singer that she was central to the iconography of Swinging London: it was as a Face. She had, you may recall,a sweet, well-bred, quavering voice. She also had eyes so innocent that no man could resist their suggestion of unearthly possibilities of lust.

From there, the story is well known: another record or two, a promising acting career, a miscarriage, an attempt to hang onto a romance that had outlived its proper pop moment, suicide attempts, heroin. Not long ago, she pulled in a bit of tawdry notoriety with dirty tales of the old days. The end.

In the late Seventies, Marianne Faithfull was little more than just another irony—an irony perpetrated not so much by bad luck and hard living as by the image of that face, now over a decade gone and, in the minds of those who had seen it, no less indelible than it ever was. But that face was always a paradox, the face of the virgin who knows every means to seduction. Faithfull lived it out, that’s all. One waited, perhaps, for her to turn up in the news again, dead. One could hardly have expected Broken English, a stunning account of the life than goes on after the end, an awful, liberating, harridan’s laugh at the life that came before.The lyrics of Broken English are not autobiographical, but the album’s power begins with Marianne Faithfull’s old persona and with one’s knowledge of the collapse of the woman behind it. Faithfull sings as if she means to get every needle, every junkie panic, every empty pill bottle and every filthy room into her voice—as if she spent the last ten years of oblivion trying to kill the face that first brought her to our attention.
The voice is a croak, a scratch, all breaks and yelps and constrictions. Though her voice seems perverse, it soon becomes clear that it is also the voice of a woman who is comfortable with what she sounds like.

You start by thinking she won’t even make it through the opening track, but before the first side is over, she has you hooked. She knows how to use this voice, twist it, make it cut. Her voice seems incapable of expressing pleasure, peace of mind, surprise: it’s all knowledge and bad dreams. The musicians, a little too faceless, back up the feeling; they’re hard-nosed, expert, doomy. You hear a lot of very modern British R&B, wracked synthesizer music and reggae inflections rather than reggae shtick. When Faithfull sings with a tiredness so intense you can barely make out the bitterness behind it, the band focuses that bitterness, and when she wants to slap someone’s face, the band makes sure it gets slapped. Faithfull depicts moral and physical debris; the band provides a bizarre frame of elegance, perhaps recalling the money behind the waste of the pop life. Thus the paradox of Marianne Faithfull’s old persona remains intact, but now it snaps shut.Faithfull cowrote three of the songs, including the title tune (her reflections on the Baader-Meinhof terrorists, and no more illuminating than most rock & roll comments on politics). There are also John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero,” Shel Silverstein’s The Ballad of Lucy Jordan” (nice housewife commits suicide over broken dreams), Barry Reynolds’ “Guilt” (“I feel good/I feel good/Though I ain’t done nothin’ wrong I fee! good”), Joe Mavety’s “What’s the Hurry” and Ben Brierley’s interesting “Brain Drain ” I mention the compositions because, with one exception, they are incidental. Some work, some don’t, but with each one, Faithfull’s singing has a conviction that is truly frightening. She could be singing in German, and her disgust and rage—and its complexity—would come through whole.

The one song that matters as a song is “Why D’Ya Do It,” a raw, utterly shameless confession of sexual jealousy with no hope of revenge. Faithfull acts it out. There’s a depth of obscenity here to make those male rockers who think they’ve gotten away with something when they throw a sexless “fuck” into a bragging tune blush: Faithfull sings—rants—about her lover’s infidelity as if it were a form of defecation. The low, growling music is obvious and right; Faithfull pushes on, past anger, to the point where ugliness is its own justification.I may have made Broken English sound like some sort of accident: a surprisingly listenable case study of a hapless neurotic. That’s not what it is at all. It is a perfectly intentional, controlled, unique statement about fury, defeat and rancor: the other side of Christine McVie’s lovely out-of-reach romances. It isn’t anything we’ve heard before, from anyone. As far as Faithfull goes, there’s a gutsiness here, a sense of craft and a disruptive intelligence that nothing in her old records remotely suggested. Broken English is a kind of triumph: fifteen years after making her first single, Marianne Faithfull has made her first real album.


Rolling Stone, January 24, 1980


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