The world is full of pop singers who have been carefully manufactured by record companies to make as much money as possible. Packaged and moulded their popularity is not based on talent, as a great deal of their appeal comes from an audience’s desire to be just like them. Talent and artistry take a back seat to glamour and celebrity as videos, stage shows and public appearances are carefully orchestrated in order to capitalize on their potential as image-making tools. The practice has been refined to the point where pretty much anybody can be slotted into the role of the “Star” and given their hour in the sun until the public bores of them and they are replaced by the next in line.
Fortunately, in a kind of alternative universe there exist those whose glamour does not need to be artificially generated as they their art gives them the ability to cast spells without anybody’s machinations. Edith Piaf, Maurice Chevalier, Lotte Lenye, Jacques Brel, and Marlene Dietrich were all singers with the gift to hold an audience in the palms of their hands just by opening their mouths. While the age of the great singers has pretty much passed us by, there are still a few out there who possess both the talent and charisma required to bewitch an audience. It takes more than technical proficiency, as the elements essential to accomplish this — heart, soul and passion — aren’t those which can be learned or taught.
Listening to Marianne Faithfull’s new release, Horses And High Heels, out June 28 on the Naive Records label, is probably one of the few opportunities you’ll have to experience a contemporary singer worthy of being included in the list above.
Faithfull has been around for a long time now, first coming to public attention with her performance of Jagger and Richards’ “As Tears Go By” in 1964. While she achieved a certain degree of popularity in the 1960s, performing in films and singing, drug and alcohol abuse caused her to fall out of the public eye. Just when she had probably been dismissed by most as another lost child of the 1960s, another talent gone to waste, she released Broken English in 1979 and was thrust back into the spotlight. While most of the attention focused on the explicit nature of some of the songs’ lyrics and for what the songs had to say about her ex-boyfriend Mick Jagger, the album’s true significance was the changes it marked in Faithfull. Gone was the young ingenue of the early 1960s with the sweet voice. Superficially it seemed like she had been replaced by a world weary and justifiably bitter woman with a voice sounding like it had been rubbed raw by emotion and experience.
However, instead of letting herself become trapped in a role as confining as the pretty young thing of her early career, after the cathartic outpouring of Broken English she was able to put the anger behind her and begin her career as a singer and actor again. Now when she performs and records she is able to bring not only her years of experience to bear on the material she elects to perform, but her abilities as both an actor and singer as well. As a result she doesn’t just sing a song, she delves into its very heart allowing the listener the chance to experience it to the fullest. That’s not to say she makes a meal of a song by emoting all over the place or indulging in any of the melodramas so many seem to think passes as genuine emotion. Like any decent actor, once she has understood the song emotionally and intellectually, she merely serves as a conduit to transmit whatever she’s performing for her audience’s appreciation.
It doesn’t matter whether she’s written a song or if she’s covering someone else’s material, Faithfull is as capable of creating from scratch as she is as interpreting. On Horses And High Heels she’s leaning more towards interpreting other people’s work than performing originals, but the four tunes of her own, including the title track, are solid reminders that she has a great ear for life and recording it. The title track, which is about two of the great European cities in which she has lived, Paris and Dublin, manages to evoke both the romanticism and sadness that everyone associates with them but in a way I’ve never heard before. The sound of high heels and horses’ hooves on cobble stones in the grey hours of early morning conjures up images and scenarios in one’s mind of romantic trysts, funeral processions, romantic endings to evenings and lonely walks home alone at the end of a long night’s work. As we listen to Faithfull sing the song we can almost see her leaning from her apartment window overlooking the morning street, observing the slow progress of a carriage and the weary footsteps of the woman.
There is something about Faithfull’s voice which gives her the power to make what she sings about come alive for the listener. It doesn’t matter whether she’s rocking out on a song like “No Reasons” or doing a slower, bluesy number like “Prussian Love,” her reading of the lyrics is never rushed or forced and is nearly always able to create images in our heads of what she’s describing. To be honest I was quite surprised at how effective she could be on a song like “No Reasons” as I didn’t think her voice would be flexible enough to handle the demands of singing at speed. Her throaty rasp might be wonderful for languid ballads and mid-tempo blues, but you don’t expect it to be able to handle belting out a rock song. Yet she not only doesn’t sound bad, she sounds right at home as she compensates for any lack of range or power with the expressiveness of her voice. Others may be able to rip through the track, but nobody can match her for making sure we understand each word of the song and just what it’s about. A great singer is not just somebody with incredible range and ability, but one who knows their own abilities and knows how to achieve the best results possible using what’s at their disposal.
While there might be people with prettier voices in the world than Marianne Faithfull, there are very few singers of popular music who can match her for artistry and character. I don’t know about anybody else, but I usually find pretty but empty wears thin very quickly while expressive and intelligent have the potential to live forever. People will be listening to Marianne Faithfull long after most of those riding high on the pop charts are long forgotten. Horses And High Heels is confirmation of her status as one of the all time great singers of popular music.
(Photo Credit: Patrick Swirc)