Album of the Week, January 19: Broken English by Marianne Faithfull

FaithfullBrokenFew musical reinventions are as thorough — or successful — as Marianne Faithfull’s. First coming to fame with her crystalline (if somewhat mannered) voice and a cover of the Rolling Stones’ As Tears Go By, her pop-folk singing career soon fell to the wayside. She embarked on a tumultuous half-decade relationship with Mick Jagger — which included their one shared songwriting credit on the powerful Sister Morphine — before breaking up and breaking down. A few years later, she returned with the country-tinged Dreaming My Dreams (also released as Faithless). While the song choices were far from perfect, the disc showed off her shattered voice and musical confidence, a combination that promised much more than her fragile early outings. That promise was fully realized with Broken English.

Title Broken English
Act Marianne Faithfull
Label Island Release Date Oct. 1979
Producer Mark Miller Mundy
U.S. Chart  82 U.K. Chart  57
  1. Broken English
  2. Witches’ Song
  3. Brain Drain
  4. Guilt
  5. The Ballad of Lucy Jordan
  6. What’s the Hurry?
  7. Working Class Hero
  8. Why D’ya Do It?

With a flawless selection of songs that suited her new musical approach, Faithfull declared that she was taking over her career and making her own statement. Informed by the nascent synth movement and the burgeoning punk scene, she worked with a sympathetic band led by guitarist Barry Reynolds to create a precursor to what would become Modern Rock a decade later. Faithfull co-wrote a number of the songs and chose the covers carefully, taking care to truly own the resulting album.

Broken English was inspired by the rash of international terrorism. Told in stark and harrowing vignettes, it’s a perfect fit for the reinvented performer and gives her a writing credit that shows her skills remained strong. Witches’ Song is a gentle ode to sisterhood, with Faithfull using the coven as a metaphor for the power of women working together to change things. Tim Hardin’s Brain Drain is a stark song of numbness and desolation that hearkens back to Faithfull’s lost decade. Guilt builds on Faithfull’s Catholic upbringing (and that of writer Barry Reynolds), showing the ways that deeply engrained fear of divine retribution can have unintended — and devastating — consequences. This quartet is one of the strongest album sides of the last half of the 70s and clearly declares that Faithfull was a talent to be reckoned with.

Side two opens with the tender, tragic Ballad of Lucy Jordan. Shel Silverstein’s tale of a 37-year-old woman’s sad and empty life was awfully close to the bone. Faithfull was just 31, but her early promise and spectacular flameout made Lucy a potential sister in sorrow. Faithfull makes the ballad the centerpiece of the album, showing Jordan’s collapse and clearly determining not to go down the same path. It remains one of her finest moments. What’s the Hurry? is a stark change of tempo, a near-disco beat propelling a song of determination and independence. The pair work flawlessly together and showcase Faithfull’s diverse musical bag of tricks.

Many people have covered John Lennon, and more than a few have tried Working Class Hero. It’s a risky business, given the distinct power of Lennon’s original. Faithfull is one of the few who understands that it’s not just a bitter, angry rant but a call to action. Her nuanced delivery makes the most of the potent track and ranks as one of the best covers of Lennon’s solo work. The album closes with the harrowing Why D’ya Do It, based on a poem by Heathcote Williams. With shocking (for the time) language including profanity and explicit references to sex acts, it’s powerful enough on its own. Faithfull and Reynolds develop a musical backdrop that’s part jazz and part Hendrix tribute. The resulting angry rant against betrayal is shocking, bare, and powerful. It makes for a magnificent end to a perfect collection of songs served up by a woman proudly and boldly announcing her return to music.

FURTHER LISTENING: Faithfull has staked out firm territory on two fronts, as a chanteuse and as a post-modern rock godmother. She has recorded a number of albums of standards, usually with producer Hal Willner, with her whiskey and smoke vocals serving the songs very well indeed. Most of her other albums use the Broken English formula mixing strong originals with well-chosen covers and collaborations. Three of these stand out as highlights. Strange Weather is the best balance of rock and retro and is one of Faithfull’s most cohesive albums. Easy Come Easy Go, from 2008, is a nice nod to the many people she’s influenced and a great set of songs. Her finest post-English album is 2005’s Before the Poison, a strong collaboration with PJ Harvey and Nick Cave that is filled with great songs.

About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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