Marianne Faithfull: “Easy Come, Easy Go”
Marianne Faithfull is a diva in the truest sense of the term. That may seem like an odd thing to say about a woman whose voice is cracked and weathered and turned to gravel by years of singing and living hard, by cigarettes and whiskey, by lost love and painful addiction, by romantic relationships with at least two members of the Rolling Stones, but it’s true nevertheless. Gravel-voiced or not, Faithfull is a nightclub crooner for the downcast and the broken-hearted, a prophetess of pain and a minstrel of sorrow, and when she sings, the whole world stops and pays attention, as though remembering how to feel again after a season of apathy.
On Easy Come, Easy Go— her third album with Hal Wilner, the man who produced her iconic album Strange Weather— she’s given the kind of treatment that only a diva could ever warrant. Wilner fills the studio with a core rock and roll band, strings, winds, brass, and a mile-long line of guests eager for an audience with Herself, a chance to have even an echo of their voice on the same track as her own: Nick Cave, Chan Marshall, Antony Hegarty, Teddy Thompson, ol’ Keef himself. And then Faithfull steps up to the microphone and summons them all to attention, that ever-fraying voice commanding them all into submission, following her lead through an all-covers set that mines the depth of sadness and sorrow– songs old and new that speak to the ravages of time and savage humanity that Faithfull has sung about– and lived– for so long.
The subtitle of the European version of the album reads, “18 songs for music lovers”– though, in the US, the two-disc set is whittled down to one, with only twelve tracks (a mixed blessing– but more on that later). Possible numerical discrepancies aside, it’s a fitting description of the album, which is nothing if not a document of a legendary performer who is in love with song itself as ever before. Faithfull picked all the material with Wilner, and the songs range from old (Duke Ellington, a couple of traditional folk ditties) to very new (The Decemberists, Neko Case). Musically, they span country, jazz, lounge, folk, rock and roll, and even showtunes. The remarkable recording flows from one selection to the next without acknowledging genre or division, simply allowing singer and listener to be swept along in the music.
And to these songs, Faithfull brings both the grace and self-assured confidence of a veteran and a youthful giddiness at the possibilities offered by the music. She leads her band through a rocking version of Case’s “Hold On, Hold On,” rippin through it with a viciousness and abandon missing from the too-polite original, and she mines the title cut for all its humor and heartache, blurring the line of where one ends and the next begins. Wilner provides her with all the colors she needs to repaint these songs as she fits; The Decemberists’ “Crane Wife 3,” with its upright bass and Nick Cave’s steely harmony, sounds even more like a British folk number than the original, and a slow-build, full-band performance of Dolly Parton’s immortal “Down from Dover” is nothing less than astounding, a soaring masterpiece of sad beauty and savagely precise storytelling. The record is held together as much by its warm, intimate sadness– which unifies the song selections– as the strong presence of the singer and band, but what makes it a stunning set is the way Wilner simply lets the tape roll, allowing the record to unfold at a leisurely pace, warts and all on display. He allows two tracks to stretch beyond the 8-minute mark: a spacey, psychedelic reading of Espers’ “Children of Stone” might be a bit much, but Faithfull’s duet with Hegarty on Smokey Robinson’s “Ooh Ooh Baby” is weird, indefinable, oddly sensual, and the best thing here. The set-closing duet with Richards on Merle Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home” is, thankfully, presented in its rough-hewn grandeur, its wistful tone summarizing and concluding the record brilliantly.
A word about the difference between the European and American version: The two-disc edition of this album– only available in the states as a somewhat pricey import– has the grand reach, the sprawl, the sweeping scope of a masterpiece, and also the messy, untamed spirit of the best double albums: Even the songs that don’t quite work– even its unwieldy length– somehow add to its greatness. Thus, with the American version, the listener is essentially getting 2/3 of a great album, not the full thing. That said, there is something to be said for the abbreviated tracklist, which is a less ambitious but inarguably tighter set, saving all ten tracks from Disc 1 and adding some standouts from Disc 2; thankfully, one gets to hear her wonderful, expressive take on Judee Sill’s “The Phoenix,” and Morissey’s “Dear God Please Help Me” actually works well with Faithfull’s flair for the theatrical. One misses her duet with Jarvis Cocker on “Somewhere (A Place for Us)” and especially her slow, sexy reading of “Black Coffee,” but then again, it’s nice not to have to endure the lead-foot treatment of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s “Salvation.”
No matter which version of the album one hears, it is unquestionably the work of a truly great performer, whose good taste and class are eclipsed only by her deep wells of feeling, her empathy and sensitivity and pain, as an interpreter. She is a great singer– a diva– who commands the stage and our attention, but here, she is something else, as well: A fellow traveler on a road through darkness and despair, lust and loss, but also light and love and hope. She takes us through the valley and to the edge, then sings us back home, and Easy Come, Easy Go stands as a journey– an experience– that takes the listener both inside and then beyond himself into something human– and something sublime.