In 1965, when she was 18 years old, Marianne Faithfull was cast as Ophelia in Tony Richardson’s Hamlet, a Roundhouse production swiftly transferred to film. Two years later Bill Gaskill directed her in Chekhov’s Three Sisters at the Royal Court, alongside Glenda Jackson: “Marriane (sic) Faithfull looked Irina most plausibly,” Philip Hope-Wallace wrote in the Guardian, “even if she could still get more out of the words.” Today, in her maturity, Faithfull knows that the best lines can be allowed to speak for themselves.
Lines like Keats’ “The sedge has withered from the lake/And no birds sing”, for example, and Tennyson’s “The mirror crack’d from side to side.” They’re heard on her new album, She Walks in Beauty, in which she recites verses from the Romantic poets over backdrops created by the Australian musician Warren Ellis.
I’ve no idea whether, following her recovery from a bout of Covid-19 which put her in intensive care for three weeks, she has plans to make any more albums. If not, She Walks in Beauty would make a fitting capstone to a career that began in 1964 when, at a party for the singer Adrienne Posta, Andrew Loog Oldham spotted a convent schoolgirl who was already in thrall to the poetry she reads here.
The album adheres to a single mood, tending towards the ethereal: drifting ambient soundscapes sparingly garnished by Ellis’s violin, Vincent Ségal’s cello, Nick Cave’s piano and, on two pieces, Brian Eno’s treatments. Faithfull’s delivery of the verses is respectful and measured: her deep contralto has the grain of experience, grounding the poetics. About half the tracks received their voice tracks after her recovery, which might explain why one or two of them are more deliberate than the rest, although not obviously or disturbingly so.
Among the pieces I particularly enjoyed are Byron’s title piece, Keats’ “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias” and Wordsworth’s “Surprised by Joy”. I was amused, too, that she borrows a tactic perfected by her old admirer Bob Dylan with “Desolation Row” and “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”: the trick of leaving the collection’s epic performance until last. In this case it’s the 12 minutes of Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott”, which she gives in the 20-stanza version published in 1832, 10 years before the author revised the ending to suit Victorian sensibilities. (It’s a shame her script — repeated in the accompanying booklet — gave her “Through the squally east wind keenly/Blew…” rather than “Though…”, but the blemish is fleeting.)
It’s worth adding that ownership of the special edition of She Walks in Beauty is much enhanced by the inclusion of reproductions of a dozen watercolours — including the cover illustration — by the English artist Colin Self, any one of which I’d be happy to have hanging on the wall.
As a collateral benefit, Faithfull’s album sent me back to Baptism: A Journey Through Our Time, a 1968 release in which Joan Baez read and sang poetry over music by the composer Peter Schickele. Conceived by Maynard Solomon, the co-founder of Vanguard Records, it was an ambitious project in which Schickele created bespoke settings for verses from poets ranging from anonymous medieval Chinese and Japanese writers through John Donne, William Blake and Walt Whitman to Arthus Rimbaud, Wilfred Owen, Henry Treece, James Joyce, Federico García Lorca, Jacques Prévert, Countee Cullen and Yevgeny Yevtushenko.
The album is bookended by Treece’s “Old Welsh Song”, a fragment sung by Baez, backed by a harmonium. Much more of a mosaic of miniatures than Faithfull’s album, the mood of the programme is defined by a hatred of war and bloodshed, beginning with Whitman’s “I Saw the Vision of Armies”, read to softly rolling tom-toms and cymbals, and the Chinese verse “Minister of War”, punctuated by a distorted guitar and a clashing gong-like effects. A hovering unison cello and bass line wanders disconsolately behind Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s translation of Prévert’s “Song in the Blood”, glockenspiel and celeste accompany the sung version of Joyce’s early “Of the Dark Past”, a jaunty string quartet matches the vivacity of a fragment from the same writer’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
If the flute and harp embroidering Rimbaud’s “Childhood” are a bit twee, his “Evil” gets a cinematic soundtrack whose opening sounds of strife thin out as they give way to pathos. The flute, viola and celeste colouring Kenneth Rexroth’s translations of Japanese haiku are appropriately exquisite, and Schickele gives Baez a lovely melody for e.e. cummings’ “All in green went my love riding”. Wilfred Owen’s “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young”, with its devastating payoff, is wisely left unaccompanied.
Baez was 27 at the time of this recording. Sometimes her delivery could be a little over-reverent, but mostly she found the right tone, nowhere more powerfully than on the two short poems at the heart of the album: Blake’s “London”, with its appalled visions of the corruption of the flesh and the spirit, and Norman Rosten’s “In Guernica”, where a simple, almost photographic description deepens into tragedy through a single word: “In Guernica the dead children / Were laid out in order on the sidewalk / In their white starched dresses / In their pitiful white dresses.” Both pieces employ the tolling of tuned percussion over strange drones.
By 1968, Baez had sold a lot of albums. Her two In Concert albums had made the Billboard top 10 in 1962-63, and in a year later Joan Baez 5 reached the UK top three. Baptism made it no higher than No 84 in the US and failed to register at all in Britain Somehow, though, partly for its sense of adventure and partly for “London” and “In Guernica”, it’s the one that’s stayed with me.