On her twenty-first studio album, the living legend Marianne Faithfull revisits a bit of the past, looks at the present, and imagines a future—all in the frank, slightly fatalistic manner of the best European artists.
For most of her career, Marianne Faithfull has distinguished herself by her singular voice. When she launched her career in the early 1960s, she had a light, slightly fragile voice not dissimilar from many other pop singers of the time. But as the decades wore on and Faithfull lived her life, we started to hear a deep, textured voice that still wavers occasionally on records like 1979’s Broken English —but with the wavering now indicating experience.
The arrangements of the songs on “Negative Capability” reflect the admiration of her most distinguishing trait by centering her vocals. The production allows for her words to be heard clearly in front of a tapestry of sad strings and elegant piano which come together to act like velvet cushions to Faithfull’s voice. This becomes clear within the first track, “Misunderstanding,” which is a smooth entry point for Faithfull’s latest creation. The song is slow and melancholy but held up by Faithfull’s ability to convey a strong personality through her vocals.
“The Gypsy Faerie Queen” is another slow start to the album, but the dreamy atmosphere serves the lyrics, and the guest vocals by Nick Cave feel especially haunting and appropriate for this track. Faithfull then treats us to a cover of her first hit, “As Tears Go By.” Her original release of the song feels remarkably young and shallow compared to this version. Now, her weathered voice and years of emotional experience lend themselves to fully heightening the melancholic spirit of the song. (Although a young Faithfull did perform a version closer to this one in the 1966 film Made in U.S.A.)
Faithfull revisits her past career two more times on this album, with “Witches Song” and “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue.” “Witches Song” is slowed down from the initial recording from Broken English, while “…Baby Blue” sounds pretty much the same as before, which is good because it’s a song that shouldn’t be messed with.
For the most part, though, this album has original songs and the majority of them are pretty satisfying. The album lags slightly in the middle with “Born to Live” and “Witches Song” edging a little too close to drowsy. But “In My Own Particular Way” is a mildly haunting, but bold assertion of vitality despite what others want to see in you. “Send me someone to love,” Faithfull sings, “someone who could… love me for who I really am/ not an image and not for money/ I know I’m not young and I’m damaged/ But I’m still pretty, kind and funny.”
Besides another sleeper, “Don’t Go,” the end of the album packs a surprising punch. “They Come At Night” is the song closest to rock on the album, and rightly so. It is an angry, righteously bitter song written in the aftermath of the November 2015 Paris terror attacks. The song begins with the condemnation, “There’s no Brave England, no Brave Russia, no America / Their sins come home to haunt us / from the wrong side of the gun” and it continues its line of anger from there. “No Moon In Paris” feels equally like a reaction to the numerous terrorist attacks Paris and France have suffered in the past several years, but where “Night” is the loudest song on the album, “Moon” is the quietest. Faithfull mournfully and pragmatically sings that “everywhere else there’s a full moon, but not here, not now, and nothing’s going right.” It’s a soft song, but the lyrics are heartfelt and relatable enough that you are entranced by her song, rather than made too sluggish as is the case with a couple of earlier tracks.
The album ends with a cover of The Pretty Things’ “Loneliest Person.” It is the second “rocker” on the album, with remarkably bleak lyrics to end the album with: “You might be the loneliest person in the world; you’ll never be as lonely as me.” It’s a slightly abrupt end to the album (I personally would have preferred “No Moon In Paris” as a conclusion), but the song itself is performed well and again Faithfull’s audible age and experience, mixed with the propulsive arrangement, adds layers of emotion and complexity to the song that is not there in the original, somber recording.
“Negative Capability” as a whole is a surprisingly satisfying and richly layered album, particularly for someone as deep into a career as Faithfull is. What makes these songs work so well is that she is not attempting to recreate her past personae, but rather embrace and display fully who she is now and what her life and perspective is as an aged performer and Englishwoman. She has plenty to say, and because of her life experience, she knows how to say it in the most efficient, direct way. This directness makes the album refreshing to listen to, not just because of the lack of overwrought fussiness in the production but because it is valuable and compelling to hear new pop music from musicians outside of their twenties. Faithfull is a walking legend and it is a relief to listen to her firmly set her foot down and remind us that she is here and that she still has something to say.