Indistinct, static and distant
Heroin addiction, anorexia, homelessness, breast cancer, COVID-19—Marianne Faithfull has been through it all. Now, after nearly dying from the virus during the first lockdown in 2020, Faithfull is back with a fittingly world-weary album, She Walks In Beauty, named after a poem by Lord Byron.
The album is composed entirely of spoken-word performances of Romantic-era poems by the likes of Byron, Keats and Wordsworth, among others (Faithfull’s passion for the English Romantic poets goes back to her youth). Composer Warren Ellis created musical pieces to accompany these readings with help from various collaborators, including Nick Cave and Brian Eno.
Conceptually, this is an interesting record. They may not be her own, but Faithfull’s selection of poems feels deeply personal, giving the listener a glimpse into her innermost self after one of many brushes with mortality. Themes of death and decline abound, with readings of “Ozymandias” and “Ode to a Nightingale,” to name a couple. These aren’t the most subtle choices, but they reflect upon her life and career nicely—especially her readings of Keats’ “La Belle Dame sans Merci” and Lord Byron’s “So We’ll Go No More a Roving,” which hint at her enduring image as a sultry Swinging London scenester.
But none of this means much if the music itself is no good. An album can’t get by on concept alone, after all. And the music on She Walks In Beauty is a total bore. Nearly every track meanders, and, as if their sheer formlessness didn’t make for enough of a snoozefest, they also come off lifeless and artificial, failing to build a compelling atmosphere and sounding like the sort of canned ambient music one would hear in a spa.
Sometimes the synth textures are incongruously cold, like on the lilting title track and Wordsworth’s “The Prelude: Book One Introduction,” which, ironically, is a particularly warm and naturalistic poem. But even at its most human, the music still manages to sound static, rarely creating tension to support Faithfull’s vocals and seldom distinguishing itself with a distinct pulse or texture. These instrumentals should immerse you in Faithfull’s inner world, but instead, they often just sound distant.
There are only a few exceptions, and two of them feature production work from—you guessed it—Brian Eno. The third exception is Byron’s “So We’ll Go No More a Roving,” cushioned by Vincent Segal’s cello and hooked by a dreamy, melodic synth line. This makes for the most memorable track on the entire record, but, of course, it’s too good to be true. After just a couple minutes, it uneventfully fades out once Faithfull finishes her recitation. This is a common problem on the record—after a poem is complete, the music will quickly dissolve, having no space to develop and define itself as a piece.
Meanwhile, Faithfull’s voice is quivery and weak, which adds convincing new weight to the selection of poems. Still, her inflection is skillful, especially on the title track. She deftly accentuates certain internal rhymes and alliterations, revealing her instincts as a songwriter. It’s a shame the music does these readings no justice and instead lends them almost no tension, depth or atmosphere.
Even if spoken word performances of 18th-century poems aren’t your idea of an exciting listen, She Walks In Beauty could have been so much more. Its concept is promising—a ruminative, intimate retrospective on a legendary rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle that’s finally coming to a close—but, thanks to the indistinct, lifeless music, it winds up sounding like nothing more than a New Age sleep aid. When Faithfull utters the phrase “cold inhumanity” on Thomas Hood’s “The Bridge of Sighs,” people will find themselves wishing her collaborators didn’t take it to heart.