'Sister Morphine' to 'Mother Wolf': 10 essential songs by Marianne Faithfull
Marianne Faithfull’s legend is long and daunting, but it all boils down to her voice. In the ’60s, still a teenager and freshly discovered by infamousRolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham, Faithfull sang like a nightingale. Her relationship with Mick Jagger soured, and her troubles began; after years of drug abuse, she emerged in the ’70s with a voice that was smoky, cracked, and worn beyond its years. Rather than fading into history, she used her shattered, husky croon to make music that wasn’t the sweet folk of her youth. Instead, her songs became deeper, darker, and more emotionally wary.
Her 1979 album Broken English marked one of the most remarkable comebacks in pop, leading to numerous collaborations with everyone from Roger Waters and Lou Reed to PJ Harvey and Nick Cave. Throughout them all, her singing became ever more nuanced and powerful—a disability turned into a symbol of pride and survival. With this year marking the 50th anniversary of her recording career as well as the arrival of her 20th studio album, Give My Love to London on November 11, here are 10 songs that sum up what Faithfull’s legend—and her voice—are all about.
“Come My Way” (1965) and “Come My Way” (1965)
No, that repetition is not a typo. In 1965, Faithfull released two distinct versions of “Come My Way”: one on her debut album Come My Way, the other on Go Away From My World, which came out seven months later. Both versions are beautiful, but the one on Come My Way is more simple and lilting, a gently plucked showcase for Faithfull’s youthful, almost mystical warble; it’s more pastoral gypsy than suburban hippie.
“Sister Morphine” (1969)
Faithfull’s romance with Jagger ended acrimoniously, and that bitterness worsened when the Stones denied her co-songwriting credit on “Sister Morphine,” a song from the band’s 1971 classic Sticky Fingers. Faithfull recorded it first, as the b-side of her 1969 single “Something Better,” and members of the Stones even play on her rendition. Her version is equal to yet different from theirs; her voice already beginning to show the ravages of drug abuse, she delivers a gravelly take on a topic that was horrifyingly close to her heart at the time. Decades later, Faithfull was retroactively granted credit for her contribution to the song’s composition, and she’s recorded it numerous times over the years. But her original performance is still the most harrowing.
“Broken English” (1979)
The ’70s weren’t any kinder to Faithfull than she was to herself. But at the end of the decade, she staged a comeback: Broken English came out that year, and the title of the album all but acknowledges her own eroded voice. Still, Faithfull made the album’s title track an icy testament to endurance, influenced heavily and bravely by the post-punk and new-wave climate of the time.
“Ballad of the Soldier’s Wife” (1985)
After a string of lackluster albums in early ’80s, it seemed Faithfull had blown her Broken English-fueled resurgence. But in 1985, she took yet another sharp left turn: toward the songbook of Kurt Weill. Aided by singer-songwriter Chris Spedding, Faithfull sang Weill’s (and Bertolt Brecht’s) World War II-era torch song “Ballad of the Soldier’s Wife” for the star-studded anthology Lost in the Stars: The Music of Kurt Weill. She captures every eerie pocket of darkness and tragic irony in the song, qualities she knew intimately. This cover also marked the beginning of Faithfull’s long association with Weill’s work, which she would continue interpreting for decades.
“As Tears Go By” (1987)
Faithfull launched her career in 1964 with her debut single, a cover of The Rolling Stones’ melancholy “As Tears Goes By.” That early version is a gem, but there’s something even more powerful about her 1987 recording of the song for her album Strange Weather. Her voice—so jagged, so vulnerable—is almost inhuman, and the arrangement is sparse to the point of evaporation. She was only 17 when she first sang “As Tears Go By;” those lyrics hit harder with so many more years, and so many more tears, behind her.
“Incarceration of a Flower Child” (1999)
Roger Waters is rumored to have written “Incarceration of a Flower Child” in 1968 about his Pink Floyd bandmate Syd Barrett. But Pink Floyd never recorded it. Faithfull—who, like Barrett, didn’t make it out of the ’60s undamaged—brought it to life for her 1999 album Vagabond Ways. Waters plays bass on it as well, and Pink Floyd’s sense of epic drama suffuses the song. But it’s Faithfull’s gritty, heartsick singing that takes Waters’ mournful atmosphere to an entirely higher level.
“Kissin Time” (2002)
By the turn of the 21st century, Faithfull had finally secured her position as pop music’s grizzled queen of perseverance. Then she managed an even more impressive feat: She remained relevant. Her 2002 album Kissin Time boasts collaborations with far younger alternative artists including Beck, The Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan, and Damon Albarn of Blur and Gorillaz. The album’s title track is a duet with Albarn, and its aching, sinuous sound feels downright scandalous. It’s also one of the freshest songs Faithfull has recorded in the recent past—her latest nervy reinvention in a career full of them.
“Before the Poison” (2005)
Faithfull has many artistic offspring, but PJ Harvey is one of that group’s most notable and profound members. One of Harvey’s collaborations with Faithfull— “Before the Poison,” the title track of her 2005 album of the same name—brings out the distinct styles of each singer. Harvey’s songwriting and playing are skeletal and moody; Faithfull’s singing is quivering and passionate. Before the Poison also boasts contributions from Nick Cave, but even his dour genius pales before Harvey and Faithfull in a room together, pushing each other to the brink.
“The Old House” (2011)
Perhaps better than any of Faithfull’s contemporaries, the late Lou Read could truly understand where she’s been. A survivor of drug abuse and the tribulations of being a cult musician working in a mainstream world, Reed added a fractured, distorted guitar solo to Faithfull’s “The Old House”—one of the standouts tracks of her 2011 album Horses and High Heels—that amplified the song’s already downbeat, memory-haunted tone.
“Mother Wolf” (2014)
Faithfull first became truly legendary thanks to “Sister Morphine,” and there’s an echo of it, perhaps unintentional, to “Mother Wolf” on her new album, Give My Love to London. The subject matter here is different; the song focuses on doomed romance instead of drugs. Then again, in Faithfull’s case, those two things haven’t always been separate. “Mother Wolf” is older, wiser, and unashamed of its scars, but it’s also a life-and-death ballad that rings as timelessly—and howls as raggedly—as anything she’s ever done.
[CORRECTION: “Come My Way” was incorrectly referred to as a “folk standard.” Marianne Faithfull responds, “I have to correct you on one thing that your paper printed which really upset me. I wrote, with Jon Mark, the song “Come My Way,” and when your magazine printed a very beautiful little sort of ‘how to go through Marianne Faithfull’s songs,’ it mentioned “Come My Way” and called it a classic folk song. And it’s not a classic folk song, it’s written by Marianne Faithfull and Jon Mark. I’ve got to really make sure that people understand that I’ve been writing and thinking about what I’m saying for years now.“]