About Negative Capability

A look at Marianne Faithfull’s beautiful and dark new album

Negative Capability by Marianne Faithfull

At a certain point in life, it’s only natural to look back and reflect. The time that remains is significantly diminished, especially compared to the years gone before. Leonard Cohen, Johnny Cash and David Bowie in particular all seemed fixated with slowly sinking into the depths of the inevitable, particularly in their later years. The descriptions can be dire, but it’s hardly surprising. Once one hits middle age, the reality sets in. Sunset is a constant lure. Once dawn subsides, it’s a slow but steady trek towards the great unknown.

Those are sobering thoughts to be sure, but when one leads a life well lived, and the backstory is filled with accomplishments that have resulted in fame, fortune and adulation, it’s only natural to look back and reflect on better times, when the future was flush with possibility, and there was no mental or physical impairment to bar the way forward.

Interestingly enough, I’ve asked many artists of significant repute if they tend to wax nostalgic, muse about an earlier existence, or find their past accomplishment lingering as an impossibly high bar that must be matched, or, better yet, exceeded.

Most deny that any competition between past and present ever enters into their mindset. The goal is to move forward, most say, and achieve anew, using whatever time remains to ratchet up new music that’s even better than before. The new album is always their favorite so far, the best work of their collective career, any earlier efforts notwithstanding.

Which is why one is inclined to respect Marianne Faithfull for her unfaltering honesty. Once a willowy waif and innocent vagabond, she was pulled into the Rolling Stones’ inner orbit and despoiled in a whirlwind of sex, drugs and impudent behavior. The influence took its toll and culminated in the album Broken English, an angry, no hold bolds riposte that found her once sweet voice turning coarse like an old shrew, fearlessly denouncing the mores and motifs seemingly expected from her.

Indeed, there was a certain shock value attached to Faithfull’s mid period progression. Which, in turn, makes Negative Capability a grounding encounter. Now, Fully invested in older age, with many of her friends gone, living in near isolation in Paris, she sees her later years as a perilous journey, and the prospect of spending life alone, the flower of youth long since faded, finds her preoccupied with sad and sobering thoughts that she expresses fearlessly and freely.

Certainly, there’s a palpable ache imbued in each of her new songs, most written in collaboration with other doom dwellers like Ed Harcourt, Warren Ellis and Nick Cave. Her vocals sound weary and resigned, even to the point where they’re actually heard cracking at times.

“Send me someone to love,” she pleads on “In My Own Particular Way.” “Someone who could love me back, love me for who I really am, not for image and not for money. I know I’m not young and I’m damaged, But I’m still pretty, kind and funny.”

She gets even further to the point on the next song, “Born To Live.” “Born to live and born to die,” she moans. “Aren’t they just the same?”

And here, on “No Moon In Paris”: There’s no moon, no moon in Paris, And it’s very lonely here tonight… And nothing’s gone right.”

It’s rare to find such confessional tomes shared on any album, and yet Faithfull’s unvarnished look at mortality is striking in both its tone and severity.  Yet even in the midst of the sobering circumstances there’s a tenable beauty that shines through, courtesy of her collaborators’ shimmering arrangements and overall sympathetic suggestion. It’s not surprising that a remake of her seminal hit, “As Tears Go By” fits in so seamlessly, given its dire declaration of hopelessness and futility. Likewise, her bittersweet take on Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue” transforms that classic track into a tale of transience, a heartfelt musing about days lost and gone forever, all the mistakes be damned. These are songs of remorse, regret and recrimination, but they’re recounted well, an ultimate ode to an imperfect life, but one well lived regardless.


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Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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