Oh, Grandma, what big make-believe teeth you have: the better to corrupt Little Red Riding Hood with, give her furry lessons in going down on tadpoles, then devour Mum and Daddy for brunch. “In proper homes throughout the land/Fathers try to understand,” but bad old role model Marianne Faithfull dreams of introducing their teenage daughters to the company of wolves instead. The 55-year-old chanteuse-provocatrice wears the “Parental Advisory” sticker on the cover of Kissin’ Time—her latest collection of musings on lust, death, love, scorn, and “Sliding Through Life on Charm”—like the confessional medal of honor: a scarlet A+. Whether anyone below a certain age will be captivated by those mischievous charms is an open question—nuance-wise, the name-dropping, cunt-calling “Song for Nico” is probably best appreciated by those acquainted with the history it channels in passing. (Not only Nico and Warhol and Lou Reed, also Andrew Loog Oldham, Alain Delon, La Dolce Vita, and the Third Reich.) On the other hand, “Everybody wants to kiss my snatch” is a universal sentiment with all-age appeal.
At the opposite end of the good-housekeeping spectrum is Linda Thompson’s pensive, dignified, flawless Fashionably Late. By comparison with the gutter-balling, grudge-nursing Sister Morphine, Thompson’s a singing nun: not the faithful, uplift-bearing kind, but the chaste, tormented, self-flagellating, Bride-of-Christ-trapped-in-an-abusive-marriage type. Returning from a cruel 17-year hiatus imprisoned in her own private hell—beset by a nightmarish psychosomatic singer’s block that robbed her of her voice—Thompson’s art still seeks itself in confinement, as a form of hemmed-in penitence. There is a sense of every note being measured out with impossible care, moving toward the listener in slow motion, freighted with the sorrows and wounds of the world. But delivered with a phenomenal, unblinking stoicism: the dirge-waltzes “No Telling” and “Miss Murray” make suffering into a rite of purification, a higher calling. Not that this is some new wrinkle in Thompson’s singing, for it was well honed during her time as ex-husband Richard’s partner, muse, and vocal foil, where her dolor made even his undertaker’s voice sound like a breath of hope. When son Teddy slips into the old man’s shoes to duet with her on the mild “Evona Darling,” his offhand warmth lifts her out of unbroken bleakness and woe for a just moment, until she relapses into “The Banks of the Clyde.”
Nearly everything on Fashionably Late has a pristinely modulated solemnity, a refined, literal-minded perfection. It’s music shorn of ambiguity, presented as a selfless representation of life-as-stasis—intimate yet impersonal reveries of people locked into roles they can never begin to escape, with the poor and wretched clothed in their traditional rag-and-shop costumes for bad luck. The Salvation Army outlook isn’t so much a problem as the unceasing gentility of the music, the implication that all this poverty/misery/loss is somehow ennobling, and the attendant divorce from experience that comes with this blinkered no-joy-in-Mudville approach. Thompson was a lot more affecting a few years back when she made a brief, unlikely cameo on a David Thomas album, singing his “Bus Called Happiness”: The unfamiliar landscape freed something in her, and the raw heartache she found in the refrain of “Why am I so slow/If I only knew/Say it isn’t so” left a gaping wound.
In a sense, Fashionably Late is too good—too enamored of the aesthetic straight and narrow, of reverse sentimentality—for its own good. This is hardly a problem for Kissin’ Time: Faithfull’s blandishments are rooted in the shameless, the disreputable, and the obvious, as well as her innate, good-natured contempt for sanctimony in whatever guise. Yet according to the reviewer in the always status-conscious New York Times, the two albums and singers are united by their mutual commitment to “sophisticated styles,” middle-aged bulwarks of good taste against a horde-house full of “the underclothed queens of pop.” But half the fun of Faithfull’s preposterous, synthesizer-cheese-pizza remake of Herman’s Hermits’ agreeably dopey “I’m Into Something Good” is that it features rock’s dowager queen of the underground impersonating a bubbly, Britney-bot ingenue. (The other half is a conceptual gag, closing the album with “I’m Into Something Good” after kicking it off with the otherwise warmed-over leatherette posturing of “Sex With Strangers”: a medley waiting to happen.)
Her mutually affectionate collaborations with various quasi-significant younger artistes (Beck, Jarvis Cocker, who does her proud with “Life on Charm,” Billy Corgan, Dave Stewart—not a woman in the bunch, though a Polly Harvey/Marianne summit meeting is promised for next time) produces pop-rock that’s several entertaining shades of retrograde. At times smart, sometimes schlocky, and frequently both, there’s an unmistakable hit-seeking aura to Kissin’ Time that flirts with Tina Turner’s Private Dancer career-resurrection formula without stooping to be conquered by it. Faithfull’s durable Professional Survivor routine is older than Marlene Dietrich, but retains the black magic of mordant glamour: Her Nico eulogy-autopsy is as evocatively skin-deep as its subject, just as the disarming catchiness of “Wherever I Go” brings together Faithfull’s younger and older selves in a rearview mirror-mirror of time lost and found. “Kissin’ Time” and “Nobody’s Fault but Mine” also call up beautifully wasted ghosts of the ’60s, pitiful Ophelia all grown up into pitiless Mother Courage, 30-year veteran of the Sex Wars. Another favorite brand of guerrilla combat is against the battalions of pious little “suburban shits who want some class.” The secret of Kissin’ Time‘s unapologetic success: sweetly pissing down their gullible, well-heeled gullets, all the while reassuring them they’re drinking vintage champagne. Nice work if you can get it, darling.
Marianne Faithfull plays Irving Plaza September 19, 21-22.