With a voice so cracked and broken by drugs and hard-living, you’d have been forgiven for thinking that Marianne Faithfull has been eclipsed by her own legend since the late ’70s. But this, her 21st album, is being framed as her version of Johnny Cash’s ‘America IV: The Man Comes Around’ – a fragile, age-bitten masterwork drenched in loneliness, decay and regret.
There are certainly elements of that to ‘Negative Capability’. As a poignant testament to a life lived hard, a 71-year-old Marianne delivers a beautifully ruined version of ‘As Tears Go By’, the Jagger/Richards song that she first scored a hit with in 1964, when she was just 18. ‘Misunderstanding’, co-written with long-in-the-tooth indie types such as Ed Harcourt and Longview’s Rob McVey, is imbued with an aching chamber ballad frailty even as Marianne insists “help the other people understand that I am not alone”. Meanwhile ‘In My Own Particular Way’ is a sumptuous cry for late-life love that reads like a forlorn Tinder profile: “I know I’m not young and I’m damaged / But I’m still pretty, kind and funny… Capable of loving in my own particular way / And ready to love at last“.
The album closes with the stunning ‘No Moon In Paris’, a tender piano and violin lament that could easily have been recorded on her lonesome Parisian balcony, as she drained the last glass of Veuve Clicquot and vaped against the dying of the moonlight. “What can I do but pretend to be brave and pretend to be strong / When I’m not?”, she sings in her inimitable, evocative, life-weathered croak.
For all its plaintive reflection, though, the album is dappled with playfulness. Her stirring Nick Cave duet ‘The Gypsy Faerie Queen’ couldn’t sound more shattered if it’d been scraped from beneath the fingernails of Sufjan Stevens after a long night clawing at hanging trees, but it’s actually an emotive evocation of Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. ‘Witches Song’, a relatively jaunty spell-caster, has a bunch of prancing hillside witches declaring “death is far away and life is sweet” as they await the arrival of their own personal Paimon. There’s ultra-modern menace too: Mark Lanegan is recruited to smear his swampy Southern steam over ‘They Come At Night’, a grind-rock diatribe against a world spun out of control: “They return the Nazis every 70 years / Bombs explode in Paris, the future is here / There’s no brave England, no brave Russia, no America”. Passion and frustration further shred her larynx; it’s powerful stuff.
Not as powerful, though, as the desolate mortality that hangs over ‘Born To Live’. “Pray for a good death, one for me and one for you,” Marianne husks in a last love letter to old friends and lovers. It doesn’t define ‘Negative Capability’, however; the record might read like a last testament, but it bristles with warmth and life, a 40-minute reason to stay positive.