||When charm is just enough
The Original It Girl Is Back - with a little help from Blur and Jarvis. By Alexis Petridis
Friday March 1, 2002
Marianne Faithfull Kissin Time (Hut) **** £13.99
It is one of the great journalistic cliches of our time. Ever since the inexplicable rise of Tara Palmer-Tomkinson and Victoria Hervey, it has been impossible to open a style section or fashion magazine without seeing someone labelled "the original It Girl". Because no one actually knows what Hervey and Palmer-Tomkinson do, the phrase has become all-encompassing. Christine Keeler is the original It Girl. So, apparently, is the Queen Mother. And Dusty Springfield. Who's next? Mother Teresa? Andrea Dworkin? The woman who played Olive in On the Buses?
Perhaps journalists love the phrase because it is such a backhanded compliment. Marianne Faithfull qualifies for the title of original It Girl because her fame is founded on the flimsiest of pretexts. She became a singer not because of any great ambition or talent, but because Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham saw her at a party and noted she looked like "an angel with big tits". She barely lasted a year as pop starlet, scoring four winsome hits between 1964 and 1965 before exiting the top 10 for good. Her career as an actress was equally vaporous. She took her clothes off in the appalling exploitation flick Girl on a Motorcycle, wafted through a handful of theatre roles, then abandoned acting to concentrate on her heroin habit.
Her drug abuse during the 1970s and 1980s and her relationship with Mick Jagger vastly overshadow her scant artistic achievements. She wrote the lyrics to the Stones' Sister Morphine, made a solitary great album - 1979's ravaged Broken English - and has interpreted Kurt Weill to critical acclaim, but she remains famous largely for being Marianne Faithfull. "People don't know what I do," she said recently. "I'm just a name."
That remark, however, goes some of the way to illuminating Faithfull's continued allure. She embodies the 1960s' most ruinous and decadent excesses, yet eschews the self-mythologising common among survivors of that decade. Her 1994 autobiography told salacious tales in a surprisingly clear-eyed manner. She is a legendary figure who retains a remarkable sense of self, an appealing combination that accounts for Kissin Time's stellar collaborators. Blur, Pulp, Beck and former Smashing Pumpkin Billy Corgan all contribute. That's a far hipper supporting cast than Jagger could muster for his own stab at contemporaneity - last year's disastrous Goddess in a Doorway had to make do with guest appearances from Lenny Kravitz and oafish former Fugee Wyclef Jean.
In addition, Kissin Time's collaborations boast a genuine creative spark. Faithfull's voice could politely be described as characterful: with her received-pronunciation croak labouring in roughly the same vicinity as the tune, she sounds rather like a Woman's Hour presenter with laryngitis. Not the easiest instrument to work with, but Kissin Time's backdrops of eerie electronics rise to the challenge.
Blur's title track constructs a setting every bit as raddled and odd as Faithfull's expectorant rasp, equal parts dub reggae, hypnotic Krautrock and Dr John-influenced swampy shuffle. Pulp's Sliding Through Life on Charm is no less startling or disturbing. As the eight people who bothered to buy Pulp's last album know, Jarvis Cocker is on fantastic lyrical form at the moment. Here, to slowly building Common People-esque anthemics, he condenses Faithfull's autobiography into four harrowing and utterly gripping verses. There is something slightly unsettling about hearing Faithfull's ruined voice sing "If Marianne was born a man she'd show you all a way to piss your life against a wall", but it perfectly captures Faithfull's unique candour.
Not everything on Kissin Time is so successful. Song For Nico, co-written with the Eurythmics' Dave Stewart, repeatedly insists that its subject was "innocent", a difficult concept for anyone aware of the Velvet Underground singer's smack-addled life story to juggle with. Set to romantic strings and acoustic guitars, it indulges in an unconvincing sentimentality that Faithfull never allows herself. And Beck's Sex with Strangers, featuring curiously dated late-1980s electronics and the faintly embarrassing sound of Faithfull rapping, is a bizarre choice for the album's first single.
Kissin Time may be inconsistent, but there's nothing knowing or mannered in its approach. Usually, albums featuring ageing stars propped up by hip young artists feel like a cynical exercise born in record-company marketing meetings: witness Tom Jones's Reload, which dragged the Stereophonics and Robbie Williams into an irksomely kitsch exploitation of his superannuated-lothario image. But while more innately talented 1960s survivors have slipped into slick complacency, Faithfull has few laurels to rest on, and throughout the album, she never sounds less then heartfelt. "I never, ever tried too hard," she admits on Sliding Through Life on Charm. That's about as close to an It Girl philosophy as you can get. The irony is that on Kissin Time, Faithfull sounds as if she is trying much harder than most of her peers.
Buy it online at www.TowerRecords.co.uk