Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Marianne Faithfull

  • Broken English [Island, 1979] A-
  • Dangerous Acquaintances [Island, 1981] B+
  • A Child's Adventure [Island, 1983] B+
  • Strange Weather [Island, 1987] A-
  • Blazing Away [Island, 1990] B-
  • Faithfull [Island, 1994] A-
  • A Secret Life [Island, 1995] Neither
  • 20th Century Blues [RCA Victor, 1997] Choice Cuts
  • A Perfect Stranger: The Island Anthology [Island, 1998] **
  • Vagabond Ways [Instinct, 2000] ***
  • Kissin Time [Virgin/Hut, 2002] B+
  • Before the Poison [Anti-, 2005] Dud
  • Easy Come Easy Go [Decca, 2009] A

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Broken English [Island, 1979]
A punk-disco fusion so uncompromised it will scare away fans of both genres, which share a taste for nasty girls that rarely extends to females past thirty with rat's-nest hair and last night's makeup on. The raw dance music isn't exactly original, and sometimes the offhandedness of the lyrics can be annoying, but I like this even when it's pro forma and/or sloppy, or maybe because it's pro forma and/or sloppy, like Dylan when he's good. "Why'd ya spit on my snatch?" indeed--the music's harshest account of a woman fending with the world. A-

Dangerous Acquaintances [Island, 1981]
More conventional than Broken English, which isn't to say it's less feminist. On the contrary, Faithfull is even writing her own lyrics instead of letting some man do it, and coming up with universal truths like "where did it go to my youth" and "looking to find my identity" in the process. And singing in such palpably broken English that she almost gets away with it. This time. B+

A Child's Adventure [Island, 1983]
Skilled work, hookful and lithely arranged and sung with a racked grace far more accomplished than the harrowing croaks of Broken English. If I were a woman in search of rock and roll models, I might well dote on it. But model rock and roll it's not--Broken English still got the power. B+

Strange Weather [Island, 1987]
Scornful of the notion that realism entered pop music with rock and roll (a/k/a "the blues"), Hal Willner introduces Faithfull to a world-weary band of Lou Reed/Tom Waits sessioneers and hopes everybody'll like the same songs he does--by Leadbelly and Henry Glover, by Dylan and Jagger-Richard, but also by Kern and Dubin-Warren. The result can rightfully be called rock Billie Holiday. Faithfull's nicotine-cured voice serves the material instead of triumphing over it; its musicality equals its interpretive intelligence. Just because she's jaded doesn't mean she can't be a little wise. A-

Blazing Away [Island, 1990]
Already too damn significant for her own good, the diva-elect displays herself and her tattered repertoire to an adoring St. Anne's claque and gets little help from a band that should know better. I could go back to the disastrous video (shots of microphone bases for variety, pans of stained-glass windows for edification, slo-mo birds for filmpoetry) to make sure that's partner-in-cultdom Barry Reynolds on guitar overkill, not wizard-for-hire Marc Ribot. But since it's definitely Ribot's pal Dougie Bowne laying on the drumrolls, I'd rather not know. Either way the misbegotten strategy is to ratchet up the melodrama until only a cad would deny's she's suffering--and not just because she's worried sick about having to pull this act off forever amen. B-

Faithfull [Island, 1994]
There's a bald expediency to this compiled-by-Chris-Blackwell-himself overview: what kind of a legend leads an 11-track best-of with the five keepers from her career album, now 15 years behind her? Yet though even the new Patti Smith cover has nothing on "Broken English" or "Why D'Ya Do It," every more recent song (as well as the iconic twice-15-year-old Jagger-Richards ingenue move "As Tears Go By") beats Broken English's filler. So slice it this way. For the first half she's a wreck, spitting imprecations at the world. During the second she regains her dignity. And since dignity is rarely as much fun as wreckage, there's a definite thrill in hearing her make something of it. A-

A Secret Life [Island, 1995] Neither

20th Century Blues [RCA Victor, 1997]
"Don't Forget Me" Choice Cuts

A Perfect Stranger: The Island Anthology [Island, 1998]
admit this--Brecht-Weill put Faithfull-Reynolds to shame ("Ballad of the Soldier's Wife," "The Ballad of Lucy Jordan") **

Vagabond Ways [Instinct, 2000]
a ravaged old hippie's bitterest laments ("Vagabond Ways," "Incarceration of a Flower Child") ***

Kissin Time [Virgin/Hut, 2002]
She's a professional sufferer, to be taken seriously as who she is rather than what she symbolizes. That said, and despite two dull Billy Corgan copyrights, these collaborations with the likes of Blur and Beck are her best bunch of songs since--not Broken English, that's ridiculous, but Strange Weather or A Child's Adventure. And that said, its peak is a ghost closer from the '60s, Goffin-King's supremely untortured "I'm Into Something Good"--inspired by Earl Jean's version, not Herman's Hermits', all feminists devoutly hope. B+

Before the Poison [Anti-, 2005] Dud

Easy Come Easy Go [Decca, 2009]
Thank you Hal Willner. She's so much more powerful here than on her Polly Jean Harvey-Nick Cave flub of 2005--in part because the old songs outweigh the Meloy-Neko-Espers numbers included to prove the old bat is still hip to the jive, but also because detailed orchestration as well as dramatic commitment renew even the filthy Bessie Smith title tune, done classic blues style but with Lenny Pickett's sarrusophone providing a sprightly bass groan. It seems crazy to say that her "Down From Dover" equals Dolly Parton's or her "In My Solitude" Billie Holiday's--they're great singers and she's not. But working together, Faithfull and Willner convert them into pop artsongs that make their own kind of sense in the company of other very different pop artsongs, including Brian Eno and Judee Sill compositions previously beloved only by their mutually exclusive cults. Not the Espers one, though. Eclecticism has its limits. A

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