Wednesday, June 22, 2011

From Despair to Enlightenment: Marianne Faithfull's Horses and High Heels

Marianne Faithfull sums up her life and her music in one simple statement: “I don’t really do conventional.” The singer/ songerwriter’s controversial past and avant-garde sound are anything but ordinary. This British Chanteuse began her career in the 1960s as a sweet-voiced teenager. But after 47 years in the business, including a decade of harrowing drug abuse and heartache, Marianne Faithfull has once again lent her now bourbon soaked, vintage vocal chords to her 23rd solo album Horses and High Heels. The album is nothing less than a culmination of pretty much all the inspiration and wisdom possessed by this iconic artist.

Born the daughter of a military officer/psychology professor and a dancer in London in 1946, by the 1960s, Marianne Faithfull was developing a name for herself in the coffee house scene. After meeting the Rolling Stones' music producer and manager Andrew Loog Oldham at one of their launch parties in 1964, Marianne’s career (and lifestyle) soon became larger than her talents. That same year, her first single, “As Tears Go By,” co-written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, earned her recognition as a pop singer in her native United Kingdom; but her stunning beauty and diverse talents also opened the door to a side career on the silver screen (The Girl on a Motorcycle, Hamlet). Yet Marianne Faithfull fully embraced her newfou
nd life as a pop star, groupie and eventually the rock star girlfriend to Mick Jagger.

Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull
Life in the fast lane led to a horrific crash by the end of the decade. Marianne became the subject of scandal after leaving her husband, John Dunbar, for the Rolling Stones front man. Her heavy drug abuse led to subsequent fallouts. She eventually found herself homeless in New York City’s Soho neighborhood. She fell subject to addiction, anorexia, mental illness, which eventually led to her losing custody of her child from her first marriage. Illness and abuse also lowered and hardened her crystal clear youthful voice. Further heartache ensued when she was blamed for her mother’s suicide attempt.

While many do not live to recover from such a fall from grace, through creativity and time, Marianne Faithfull managed to reinvent herself. 

The first sign of her restoration was 1976’s Dreamin' My Dreams (repackaged in 1978 with additional songs as Faithless) which was her only record of mostly country music. But it was 1979's uncompromising Broken English, a harrowing record which confronted those years of pain and abuse, that truly became her definitive album. On it, she was able to tame her new found voice into a gritty elegance. As she slowly built herself back up in the 1980s and 1990s, her voice and her message continued to reflect hard living and pain. Over the years, she was able to find both peace and a newfound fame, especially amongst her peers as she began collaborations with other artists including PJ Harvey and Nick Cave.

Marianne Faithfull
Now in her sixties, her sound has peeked with an autumnal peacefulness. Horses and High Heels, recorded in New Orleans, offers nine brilliant interpretations and four originals, co-penned by Marianne herself. This genre-bending album includes a mix of brooding rock, folk, blues and even a little classical. She is accompanied by some notable greats, including Dr. John, Lou Reed and John Porter. However, despite the celebrity and talent on hand, the record is very much focused on Marianne’s vocals completely stripped down of any embellishments.

While the mood on the album is stabilized, she cascades numerous emotions from despair to enlightenment. The opening folk-rock number “The Stations,” a Gutter Twins cover, has a dark and haunting feel to it. The same spookiness is applied to her dramatic take on the Shangri-La’s “Past, Present and Future.” Marianne lends her Shakespearean training to deliver a voiceover of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata mixing both classical and cabaret. A few poignant and nostalgic pieces are included such as her cover of “That’s How Every Empire Falls,” probably the most beautiful song on the album. Her striking cover of Gerry Goffin and Carole King’s “Goin’ Back” is especially fitting given the artist’s history ("I think I'm goin' back/To the place I knew so well in my youth"). On the melancholy side is her self-penned break-up song “Why Did We Have to Part” and the bittersweet closer “The Old House.” The title track to the album, "Horses and High Heels,"also includes some uplifting toe-tapping moments. Her take on “No Reason,” has a familiar Rolling Stones feel to it. But she displays a jazzier side in her own composition “Eternity.”

Marianne Faithfull may have never gained quite the recognition in United States as she has in the United Kingdom, perhaps due to her nonconformist sound, but that's no matter. She possesses a charisma and longevity rarely seen in pop artists. Described as a bohemian survivor, the songstress’ latest collection is dark and romantic, heartfelt and honest, nostalgic yet in the moment. While there is an essence of sadness to all of her tracks, there is also a balance of happiness, peacefulness and maturity. While the happiness may not be the conventional kind, Horses and High Heels tells us that the depression has finally depart

Laura Warner is a librarian, researcher and aspiring writer living in Toronto. She is currently based in the Canadian Broadcasting Centre’s Music Library.

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