Album Review: Marianne Faithfull and Warren Ellis Celebrate the Great Romantic Poets in the Majestic ‘She Walks In Beauty’

Esteemed musical talent Marianne Faithfull’s career has been of the most diverse in recent memory. From beginnings as a Decca-signed pop and folk talent which saw her notable cover of The Rolling Stones’ As Tears Go By and early LPs 1965’s Marianne Faithfull and Come My Way, the singer would turn to British country for 1976’s Dreamin’ My Dreams, New Wave in her opus Broken English in 1979, and sparse Angelo Badalamenti produced art-rock sounds of 1995’s A Secret Life. We’ve since seen Faithfull’s rendition of Kurt Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins, electronic dance rock in 2002’s Kissin Time (featuring the vastly underrated Sex With Strangers), to alternative singer-songwriter sounds on her recent albums assisted by Warren Ellis and Nick Cave including 2005’s Before the Poison, 2014’s Give My Love to London, and 2018’s Negative Capability (the latter taking its name from Keats). Amidst these releases, Faithfull has found herself plagued with ill-health – most recently taking hold in a battle against COVID last April, midway through recording the upcoming spoken-word poetry album She Walks In Beauty.

For She Walks In Beauty, Faithfull explores her love of the classic Romantic poets with composer and multi-instrumentalist Warren Ellis as well as selected contributions from Nick Cave, Brian Eno, cellist Vincent Ségal and producer-engineer Head, who have become something of the singer’s musical family. Faithfull’s friend and manager Francois Ravard was instrumental in assembling the project, recalling “I loved the idea immediately, and I called Head and asked him to go to Marianne to record her readings.” This then saw him approaching Warren Ellis to see if he could score them in the same way he scores his films. “It took time for him to realise what he could do, but afterwards he said that he’d had one of the best times in his life working on it.”

Opening with Lord Byron’s She Walks In Beauty, gentle birdsong, synthesiser effects and piano precede Faithfull’s vocally rich rendition of Byron’s ode to female aesthetic beauty and inner goodness. Faithfull’s grasping of Byron’s words “And on that cheek, and o’er that brow, So soft, so calm, yet eloquent, The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
But tell of days in goodness spent,”
have an otherworldly magnetism and gravitas, that is both welcoming and gripping. Thomas Hood’s The Bridge of Sighs follows, featuring the soundscapes of Brian Eno with he and Faithfull capturing the melancholy tragedy at the heart of this poem concerning the suicide a homeless one young woman in London. Faithfull captures the dramatic foreboding and complex rhyming structure of the poem with the emotive delivery bringing Hood’s lyricism to life with a tragic vigour.

Three John Keats poems follow in La Belle Dame sans Merci, Ode to a Nightingale and To Autumn, with Eno’s compelling esoteric textures notably prominent in the first. Ellis channels Keats pre-occupation with love and death, with haunting subtle instrumental soundscapes travelling beneath the chanteuse’s delivery exploring this transparent tale of the predicaments of a dying medieval knight in this delivery of the original 1819 poem. Ode to a Nightingale, the second longest of the poems, clocking in a six minutes fifty seconds has a cinematic quality and once again sees Faithfull’s capturing Keats’ fascination with the inevitability of death, paralleled with the immortal call of the nightingale. The singer showcases a similar powerful understanding and grasp of the rich imagery and meaning that Keats crafts in recounting features of the harvest on To Autumn. There is an entrancing quality to Faithfull’s delivery amidst the production, a haunting dreamlike beauty holding, steadying listeners.

Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Ozymandias marks the album’s half-way point allowing Faithfull to channel the rich atmosphere of classic Eastern history in the elusive poem, amidst hazy instrumentation crafting the sense of the listener exploring a desolate landscape. Like all the album’s productions, Ozymandias allows Faithfull’s poetic delivery to breathe bookending them with brooding, transporting instrumental introductions and conclusions allowing us to immerse ourselves in the beauty of the lyrical imagery, Faithfull’s raw and impassioned delivery, and Ellis and his collaborator’s magnetic soundscapes.

The Prelude: Book One Introduction and Surprised By Joy from William Wordsworth follow with Faithfull capturing the poet’s jubilation upon escaping London and returning to the countryside of the Lake District on the first of these. Vivid recounting of the ‘gentle breeze,’green fields’ and ‘sweet breath of heaven’ help craft this transporting natural imagery, whilst a string section towards the end of the piece furthering a sense of picturesque beauty. Wordsworth’s sonnet Surprised By Joy follows, a short piece that depicts Wordsworth’s grief at not being able to share moments of joy with his deceased daughter. Delicate strings join Faithfull’s reading adding a further pang of emotion to Faithfull’s heartbreak-flavoured readings of “To my most grievous loss! That thought’s return, Was the worst pang that sorrow ever bore, Save one, one only, when I stood forlorn, Knowing my heart’s best treasure was no more…”

An otherworldly magic is found in Faithfull’s voice in To the Moon by Percy Bysshe Shelley (well she was God in Absolutely Fabulous) as the singer recounts imagery of the stars and the lonely moon ‘pale for weariness‘ and ‘wandering companionless‘ conjuring a desolate cosmic energy. A further entry from Bryon, his late night lament So We’ll Go No More a Roving, shines despite being one of the poet’s most straight-forward poems with Faithfull managing to convey its metaphors and smooth flow with an atmospheric, cinematic quality. “Though the night was made for loving, And the day returns too soon, Yet we’ll go no more a-roving, By the light of the moon,” Faithfull croons capturing the heart’s desire for nightlife yet also giving indication to the poem’s metaphorical interpretations of heartbreak and ageing. The Lady of Shallot from Lord Alfred Tennyson closes the set with Faithfull and Ellis conveying the ballad’s rich lyrical storytelling of Arthurian legend in its eleven minute duration.

She Walks in Beauty is a poignant, elegant affair which sees Ellis’s production and Faithfull’s charismatic renditions, breathe further beauty and majesty into these works of the great romantic poets. The release serves as a further testament to the diverse impact that Faithfull has brought to the world of music, whilst having us eager for Faithfull’s next musical masterpiece, whichever direction she takes us.

She Walks in Beauty is scheduled for release on April 30th 2021. Order the album here.

Lead Photo: Danny Kasirye for The New York Times