In our fundamentalist times, few concepts seem more subversive - and more necessary - than "negative capability," the term coined by John Keats to describe the state of living in mystery, embracing doubts, accepting uncertainties, and looking at a situation from multiple perspectives.
Marianne Faithfull would appear to agree, since she titles her beautiful new album after Keats's concept. Negative Capability is Faithfull's 21st record, and one that she's described as "the most honest" album she's made in her 54-year career. Less gorgeously loud and more meditative than its predecessor, the great Give My Love to London (2014), Negative Capability reunites Faithfull with a few of her collaborators from that venture, among them Ed Harcourt and two Bad Seeds (Nick Cave and Warren Ellis), with Ellis sharing production duties with Rob Ellis this time around.
Recorded at La Frette studio on the outskirts of Paris, the new album is informed by Faithfull's still-raw recent experiences of loss and illness (the latter much-discussed at her last concerts) in a way that will probably invite kneejerk comparisons to late works by Johnny Cash and Leonard Cohen.
Such comparisons are apt - up to a point. But as I argued about Give My Love to London, reviews which posit Faithfull as "the female Cash" or "the female Cohen" suggest a too-easy shorthand for describing the work of older women artists. In addition, they risk selling short Faithfull's own particular history and artistic vision: one that's been marked by open-minded experimentation and fruitful, often unexpected collaborations with a range of artists.
Negative Capability is an album that looks both inward and outward, and its candour is signalled by the cover image, which presents Faithfull, walking stick in hand, confronting the viewer with a direct gaze. Sonically there's a chamber music quality to some of the arrangements, underpinned by folky shades, with just a couple of tracks bursting forth with rock attitude.
The opening song, "Misunderstanding," sets Faithfull's musings on communication and the challenges of being present and honest in relationships to dolorous violin, gentle piano and softly-strummed guitar, making for a spare and haunting introduction. The tone is sad, reflective, slightly bitter, with Faithfull wasting no time in dropping an f-bomb, before a note of reassurance enters the picture. "Love is real, love is here, the only thing I know for sure," she sings, finally apostrophising the concept of love itself: "Only you have such allure."
Since Keats saw Shakespeare as the artistic exemplar of "negative capability," it feels right that Faithfull draws direct inspiration from the playwright here. The second song (and first single) "The Gypsy Faerie Queen," a co-write with Nick Cave, takes Puck from A Midsummer Night's Dream as its narrator, following the mystical figure of the title who "walks the length and breadth of England" with her "crown of rowan berries" and "blackthorn staff" "to help and heal the land." Built around viola and piano, the romantic track boasts a warm supporting vocal from Cave, while harmonies from the other boys in the band give the choruses a stirring, hymnal quality. Englishness here is not so much broken as restored: loving, literary, pagan, pastoral. Following earlier gems such as "Crazy Love" and "Late Victorian Holocaust," this fantastic new song reaffirms Cave and Faithfull as the most sympathetic and in-tune of collaborators.
In technical terms, Faithfull's voice has probably never sounded more fragile on record. But those limitations can seem like virtues when it comes to investing the material with emotional expressiveness. Spare piano-based arrangements forefront every creak and crack in her vocals on "Born to Live," a tender eulogy for Anita Pallenberg which becomes a reflection on our common fate, and "Don't Go," written for guitarist Martin Stone, which urges a dying loved one to hold on. These heartfelt performances have a directness and unvarnished immediacy that draws the listener in.
The album's more ambient, rockier tracks are among its most impactful. The chiming "My Own Particular Way" pivots on the narrator's admission of her desire for a companion yet there's affirmation rather than self-pity as Faithfull declares: "I'm ready to love at last."
The most incendiary moment arrives with the album's fierce confrontation with fundamentalism in its most extreme expression: terrorism. A chugging, insistent rhythm, and siren-like guitar, course through "They Come at Night," Faithfull's chilling response to the Paris attacks of November 2015, written with Mark Lanegan. "What is this horror, mama?" Faithfull sings with shock and disgust, seeming to address her own mother who survived both Nazi and Soviet atrocities. A search for saviours is futile - "There's no brave England, no brave Russia, no America" - as Faithfull evokes Leonard Cohen's indelible vision of dystopia: "Bombs explode in Paris/The future is here." Thematically the song connects with "Broken English" and rivals "Mother Wolf" as one of her most powerful moments on record. The track gains even greater poignancy from its release in the week of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting.
Woven throughout are three songs from Faithfull's past, each revisited to compelling effect. "The little song that started it all," which Faithfull returned to on Strange Weather (1987) and has often performed in concert, "As Tears Go By" makes even more sense as an autumnal reflection here, "the evening of the day" clearly standing for the twilight of a life. The new take on "Witches' Song" brings a rootsier flavour to Faithfull's vision of female power. And Dylan's "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" is particularly strong, Faithfull's delivery by turns stately, biting and tender. "Forget the dead you've left, they will not follow you," she rasps, seeing in an ending the potential to "start anew."
The piano-led Harcourt co-write "No Moon in Paris" closes the album on its most exposed and intimate note, the song finding obscurity and isolation for its narrator in the City of Light. Yet a sliver of resilience remains. "What can I do but pretend to be brave/And pretend to be strong when I'm not?" Faithfull wonders, taking comfort in the memory of other moons, and an acceptance of what changes and endures.
This mature perspective on permanence and transience characterises the album as a whole. A work of sadness, it's a record whose openhearted honesty nonetheless gives the listener courage. "We exist in the country in between," Faithfull sings on "The Gypsy Faerie Queen." Negative Capability makes a compelling case for that liminal space, forged between light and darkness, love and loss, terror and hope.
Negative Capability is available on Panta Rei/BMG records on 2 November. Further details here.
(Photos: Yann Orhan)