The mournful roll of fingers across piano keys, a hiss of strings, a pause -- and then that wise and mournful voice, deep and with a slight catch in it, begins to tell you about life and love and illusions. "There is a ghost..." Marianne Faithfull breathes, some 40 years after her first single, "When Tears Go By", hit the airwaves. Her voice is older, more cynical, roughened with experience, but carrying a wry sincerity that cuts right through to your heart. Before the Poison
, the 20-somethingth album of the sixties diva's career (depending on how you count live albums and best-ofs), documents an extraordinary musical interpreter at the height of her powers, working with artists who, for the most part, complement and reinforce her strengths.
Of Before the Poison's 10 tracks, half are collaborations with PJ Harvey, with Harvey writing music and/or words and playing guitar and other instruments to support Faithfull. On the face of it, you wouldn't expect Marianne Faithfull and PJ Harvey to have much in common. One, a great beauty from the sixties, is as well known for her love affairs as her music, and though her voice is an extraordinary instrument in its own right, she has never played another. The other, defiantly unglamorous and confrontational, has always made her own way through the sharkish waters of independent rock, writing and playing and steering her own course. However, as Before the Poison makes clear, the two have more in common than their surface differences suggest. There's a deeply blue tone to Faithfull's voice that is mirrored in Harvey's blues rock aesthetic. The slashing pulse of Harvey's guitar, the strident upward slope of her melodies, have exactly the same degree of repressed passion as Faithfull's shattered, incantatory voice. There's a witchy female power at work on the five tracks Faithfull and Harvey collaborate on, a willingness to look directly and unblinkingly at the dark side of love and obsession, and these tracks form Before the Poison's spiritual and musical center.
The main point of collaborating is to explore new territories, aided by an experienced guide. Harvey takes Faithfull into her own driving and dissonant world, putting an angular rock attack under "My Friends Have" without overwhelming Faithfull's rhythmic chant. More subtly, Harvey's reverbed guitars add a slow rock sheen to "Mystery of Love", which might otherwise be a fairly straightforward ballad. This song, like "In the Factory", which appears later in the album, sound very much of a piece with Harvey's tranquil Stories from the City-era style, yet they gain depth and self-contradictory interest with the addition of Faithfull's voice. Similarly "No Child of Mine", a Harvey song that appeared on 2004's Uh Huh Her, retains that record's bluesy understatement, yet becomes something more when Faithfull's smoke-infused spoken-song joins Harvey's more melodic croon.
On three other songs, Faithfull works in partnership with Nick Cave. The best of these is "There Is a Ghost", whose minimal palette of piano and occasional strings paints a bleak and beautiful backdrop for this tale of lost love. The piano here is particularly fine; its soft, liquid brightness underlines and comments on Faithfull's singing, echoing the vocal line and reshaping it, yet leaving space for reflection and memory. "Crazy Love" incorporates the same glowing keyboard sounds into a richer tapestry of musical sounds -- drums, bass, violin, guitar and piano -- but again leaves the critical white space that allows us to consider and appreciate Faithfull's voice. The third Cave collaboration, "Desperanto", is less effective, with Faithfull's deadpan rap overwhelmed by a messy, disorganized funk-rock stew.
Before the Poison also includes work with Blur's Damon Albarn (who previously collaborated with Faithfull on Kissin' Time) and movie-music kingpin Jon Brion. "Last Song", the Albarn track, is sparse and gorgeous, recalling Faithfull's folksinger past, when she covered artists like Tim Hardin and Bert Jansch. She closes the album with Brion's "City of Quartz", a stylized and glossy venture into the Brecht/Weill territory that has long fascinated her. The cut's mix of clock sounds, glockenspiel and toy piano takes a bit of getting used to, and while it's an interesting, pastel-colored contrast to her deep-toned voice, it doesn't work as well as the rest of the album.
On the whole, though, Before the Poison is a wonderful disc, the sound of a well-established artist continuing to grow and explore. Faithfull could easily rest on her past achievements -- or on the fact that she has one of popular music's most distinctive and soulful voices -- but she doesn't, choosing instead to forge ahead with new people, styles and ideas.