Incredibly, it’s been nearly 40 years since Marianne Faithfull’s career renaissance began with the harrowing ice funk of 1979’s masterful “Broken English.” That album and its two successors were made with Grace Jones collaborator Barry Reynolds; over the intervening years she’s made three cabaret-esque albums with producer Hal Willner, a classically influenced outing with “Twin Peaks” composer Angelo Badalamenti (“A Secret Life”), two albums consisting mostly of songs by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, a pair of vaguely alternative-pop albums featuring collaborations with Beck, Damon Albarn, PJ Harvey and Pulp (“Kissin’ Time” and “Before the Poison”), and an array of other outings for her deep and dignified voice.
All of which is less to praise her formidable catalog and her reinvention from her early years as a teen pop balladeer (albeit one who wrote the lyrics to the Rolling Stones’ harrowing “Sister Morphine”) than to point up the “What next?” challenge facing an unmistakably distinctive singer now 54 years into her career, not to mention one who has been hampered by recent health challenges, including down arthritis.
All of which makes “Negative Capability” all the more impressive: Not only is it one of the strongest albums in her catalog, it places her in a suitable musical context both for the material she’s tackling and the point she’s at in her career and life. Collaborating primarily with Warren Ellis and Rob Ellis, the former’s work with Nick Cave and the latter’s with PJ Harvey form reference points for the sound here. Like the recent work from those two artists, “Negative Capability” is acoustic-based, haunting and atmospheric, delicately but powerfully arranged.
Cave cowrote and duets on “The Gypsy Fairie Queen,” Mark Lanegan (formerly of Screaming Trees and Queens of the Stone Age) and Ed Harcourt also cowrote songs here, providing both darkness and light to Faithfull’s emotionally powerful readings. Lanegan wrote the music for “They Come at Night” — a sobering reflection on the 2015 massacre at the Bataclan in Faithfull’s adopted hometown of Paris, which was premiered at the theater the following year — and the reflective Harcourt collaboration “Moon in Paris” is one of the loveliest songs of her recent career.
Yet the album also finds Faithfull looking back musically: It includes a stately new version of “As Tears Go By” — the song written by former boyfriend Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, which launched her pop career in 1964 — as well as a revisitation of “Witches Song” from “Broken English” and a cover of Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”; her long friendship and near-romance with the enigmatic bard is a highlight of her 1994 autobiography.
It probably goes without saying that aging and mortality figure heavily in the songs on this album. “It’s the most honest album I’ve ever made,” Faithfull says in the bio for “Negative Capability.” “There’s nothing like real hardship to give you some depth. I’ve had terrible accidents and I’m really damaged. I’m in a lot of pain and worked really hard to get strong so I can do my work. The great miracle is I was able to make this beautiful record.”
She doesn’t give herself enough credit: “Negative Capability” is one of the strongest albums of a career filled with them, and a shining example for any artist seeking creative challenges late in their career.