This collaboration between Marianne Faithfull and Warren Ellis reaches back to Faithfull’s long-held desire to create a piece of work that draws on the work of certain English Romantic poets: Byron, Hood, Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth and Tennyson.
Poetry has been a constant touchstone for Faithfull, from 1979’s Broken English (which featured Heathcote Williams’s Why D’Ya Do It?), 1995’s A Secret Life (featuring some of Frank McGuinness’s work), and a 2008 tour of Shakespeare’s sonnets with cellist Vincent Ségal (who here contributes to To the Moon and So We’ll Go No More a-Roving).
It is easy to understand the appeal of the Romantics and their centring of an interplay between both contemplative and emotional impulses. This interplay is recontextualised here through Faithfull’s careworn voice, emblematic of, as she has remarked, “life and near-death experience”.
She Walks in Beauty has Faithfull’s voice underpinned and complemented with birdsong, sounds of the sea and electronics that seem to glow, a recurrent musical motif, with Ellis’s version of musique concrète (featuring Nick Cave on piano and Brian Eno contributing some sound textures) adding something quite special.
This is a work to savour, whether through Faithfull conveying “loving not loathing” on The Bridge of Sighs amid graceful piano, or the way the mournful To Autumn glimmers and shifts to somewhere more hopeful. On Ozymandias, a stirring sense of “undisturbed delight” is met by a lone, elegant violin that takes us through to Prelude: Book One Introduction, where it becomes clear that Faithfull is not simply reciting these poems but embodying them. It is there in the way she enunciates a word such as “vicissitude” on Surprised by Joy, treating the words carefully, sacredly, as she incants on Ode to a Nightingale, “Forlorn! the very word is like a bell, to toll me back from thee to my sole self!” while Ellis responds in kind.
The opening of To the Moon brings to mind Björk’s Unravel, with its tone and timbre. “Art thou pale for weariness?” Faithfull asks, as the piece morphs into something that resembles an old, wistful radio broadcast. Yet amid serious concerns, this record manages to convey a sense of loving, a pure faith that was found in Faithfull’s schooldays, where these poems first became imprinted on her imagination. So We’ll Go No More a-Roving is nourishing beauty, with Faithfull’s scratch
y, sensuous vocal matched by Ellis’s celestial soundscape, and epic album closer The Lady of Shallot could be part-biographical; but, while Faithfull might be “half sick with shadows”, “in her web she still delights, to weave the mirror’s magic sights”.