Marianne Faithfull and Warren Ellis. Credit: Rosie Matheson

In these dark days, when counterculture heroes of the 60s and 70s are dropping at an alarming rate, it’s important to take a break from mourning and assess who’s still standing—and who’s still creating vital art. By all rights, singer-songwriter Marianne Faithfull could have left us long ago. She rose to fame as much for her music as for her association with the famously debaucherous Rolling Stones camp in the late 60s, and she struggled with drug addiction, eating disorders, and homelessness at various times in the 70s and 80s. Since then she’s persevered through battles with hepatitis C and breast cancer and, most recently, a terrifying ordeal with COVID-19. The daughter of an heiress, Faithfull had been gigging in London’s folk clubs when she met Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham at a party for the band in 1964. She quickly became an “it girl” and released a series of light and sunny hits in the early 70s, then made it through the underground-music wringer, emerging powerful and smoky-voiced by decade’s end with 1979’s Broken English. You could say she’s a survivor—and she’s a witty, well-read survivor at that.

Faithfull has had literary leanings her whole life; she studied the English Romantic poets while at school at Reading, interpreted Heathcote Williams’s poem “Why’d Ya Do It” on Broken English, set poems by her friend Frank McGuiness to music on 1995’s A Secret Life, and took on the on the writings of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht on 1998’s Seven Deadly Sins. While in lockdown last year, Faithfull created what’s arguably her most intensely literary work yet, She Walks in Beauty, which sets works by some of the most famous Romantics (Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats, Lord Byron, William Wordsworth) to music by composer, multi-instrumentalist, and longtime Nick Cave cohort Warren Ellis. Ellis collaborated with Faithfull on her 2018 release, Negative Capability, and on the new album, he plays piano on most of the songs. Brian Eno also appears, adding borderline ambient textures to “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” and “The Bridge of Sighs.” Produced by Head, who’s probably most famous for his work with PJ Harvey, the album reveals a Faithfull we’ve never quite heard before—her velvety, sandpapered voice intones each ode to the ages against minimal, ethereal backdrops, aided by the subtle cello of Vincent Ségal. Ellis has described the record as echoing the avant-garde sensibility of musique concrète, which is constructed using already recorded sounds as raw material, and some of its songs do in fact include street noise and other field recordings buried in their mixes. She Walks in Beauty isn’t your typical “legacy artist” fare—by which I mean it’s not a misguided and awkward bid to stay relevant, bloated with cameos by hot stars from younger generations or hobbled by inappropriate attempts at current styles. It also isn’t the type of album you’d throw on at a party, and it’s all the better for it. Save She Walks in Beauty for a late night with red wine, a spliff, and maybe your favorite volume of verse, when you can revel in the work of an artist who’s still trying new things at 74. Enduring warriors like Marianne Faithfull know no other way.   v