“Give my love to London,” Marianne Faithfull sings on the title track to her latest album. At first it sounds like a friendly request, but it soon becomes a threat: “The river’s runny bloody, the towers tumbling down,” she sings, not exactly horrified by the tableau. “I’m singing ‘Pirate Jenny’ as the blackship’s bearing down.” It’s a sly reference. The second most popular number form Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera (the first being “Mack the Knife”), “Pirate Jenny” is a stout song about bloody wish fulfillment: A bitter and beleaguered hotel maid imagines a marauding pirate ship destroying the city and murdering all the people who treated her so cruelly, ending with Jenny escaping with the swashbucklers and scallywags.
Faithfull famously performed the tune in the mid 1990s during a Threepenny revival in Dublin, and her fascination with Weimar-era musical theater inspired her 1997 album 20th Century Blues, which includes her best version of the song. On “Give My Love to London”, Faithfull reimagines herself as Pirate Jenny returning to the scene of her greatest triumph and surveying a London still in ruins. Although the final verse resituates the song, it’s not hard to imagine Faithfull as the conquering anti-hero, especially considering how she was run out of the city in the late ‘60s for the same behavior that earned her male peers—including and especially Mick Jagger—their lucrative reputations as bad boys.
And yet, there is some affection in “Give My Love to London,” which was co-written with Steve Earle, now a Londoner himself. Faithfull navigates the bouncy melody gracefully and generously, evoking the easy bonhomie of old friends who have long put any ill will behind them. The song announces an album that will confront the past, her own and our own, as though trying to sever it from the present. This is not necessarily a memoir set to music, mainly because these songs find Faithfull playing roles other than herself. As a result, it’s her best and most daring album of this century, featuring some of her heaviest and most haunting performances.
Faithfull has spent most of the time since 20th Century Blues fashioning herself into rock’s grand dame, an avatar of European decadence redeemed into something like old-world authority. Working with Britpop survivors (Damon Albarn, Jarvis Cocker) as well as American alt-rockers (Beck, Billy Corgan), she’s made a handful of fine albums that persistently reinforce her reputation as a formidable interpreter of others’ songs, as if anyone still though otherwise. Before the Poison and Easy Come Easy Go may have put her in touch with a younger generation of artists who considered her both a hero and an influence, but Give My Love to London is something else entirely. Working with Roger Waters, Nick Cave, Anna Calvi, and a band that features Ed Harcourt, Portishead’s Adrian Utley, and members of the Bad Seeds, she has created an album that bristles with danger and even roils with anger.
But it also has moments of disarming humor. Toward the end of Give My Love to London, she gingerly covers Leonard Cohen’s “Going Home”, a late-career rumination on the nature of creativity. It’s a monologue delivered by a muse who considers Cohen “a lazy bastard living in a suit”—in other words, a tool no different than a pen or quill. Faithfull does not replace his name with hers; instead, she plays the muse herself, claiming his triumphs as her own. It becomes a melancholic hymn to age and experience, but more wittily, it’s a funny and fitting turnabout for a songwriter who has repeatedly exploited his female subjects for his own spiritual gain (see, for example, “Chelsea Hotel No. 2”).
Faithfull has always conveyed a sensual gravity with that gravelly voice of hers, but the melancholy on Give My Love to London is tinged with angst and disaffection—perhaps inspired by her recent bout with cancer, or the back injury that left her bedridden, or just by a sense of alienation from a world that makes less and less sense by the day. For most artists of her generation, such topicality can sound either haughty (Neil Young’s recent orchestral protest song, “Who’s Gonna Stand Up”) or simply cloistered from the rest of the world (David Crosby’s latest album). But the theatricality of Faithfull’s performances lend weight to a song like “True Lies”, with its pendulum guitar riff and accusing lyrics: “True lies from your twisted little mind!” she glowers, her outrage absolutely withering.
“Mother Wolf”, which Faithfull co-wrote with Patrick Leonard, may be her finest moment on Give My Love to London. It consists primarily of a single verse and chorus, each repeated throughout the song, but Faithfull sings each iteration with new dramatic emphasis. On the first time through, she delivers the allegorical lyrics almost passively, as though looking down on humanity from some high cloud. The next time, she has descended to earth and become a human amid the earthly horror of war. Faithfull doesn’t sing so much as she spits the words, her delivery grinding against the song’s meter. “How you disgust me!” she growls, turning those syllables into something acrid and poisonous and fundamentally ugly. Her performance meets violence with more violence, and the song’s pummeling pace and dark catharsis simultaneously underscore and undermine the song. The pirates are attacking London, and Faithfull is leading them onward.
from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/1uNBxxR