Marianne Faithfull, as Gina Arnold once observed, is primarily an actress playing the role of herself. She’s not a composer, a musician, or even a singer; she’s a celebrity, lyricist, and conceptualist whose one Big Idea—feminism can include the survival story of a teen star turned glamorous junkie—has meant so much to VH-1. And although rock and roll bona fides were essential to her reinvention, she can’t make a record by herself: The credits for the last one included Daniel Lanois, Roger Waters, and Elton John and Bernie Taupin, choices so uncool (this was before the Scissor Sisters) they would’ve been hip if the record had been any good.
On the follow-up Faithfull enlists Polly Jean Harvey and Nick Cave, collaborators so appropriate she doesn’t deserve credit for asking them. Harvey and band generate half of the album’s 41 minutes, to mutual advantage—Polly’s songs have always sounded like they were written for a 300-year-old, and La Marianne sings like she’s half that. For the first two tracks, it’s a perfect match. Faithfull croaks “The Mystery of Love” in counterpoint to Harvey’s anxious chords and wistful lyrics, and then snarls “My Friends Have,” her young collaborator’s saccharine assessment of a dinner party to which Faithfull dragged her. Polly must be a believer; she’s handed over the good stuff, including the full version of the devastating “No Child of Mine,” last heard as a one-minute sketch on Uh Oh Her or whatever that last PJ Harvey record was called. Faithfull mumbles too much of it, but given the dynamic between her experience and Polly’s wisdom, it’s the emotional center of the record.
As if that relationship didn’t provide enough subtext, we also get three tracks with Harvey’s ex. “Crazy Love” is a Nick song I at first took for a weak Polly number, which he should take as a compliment. He’ll never have Polly’s gravitas, and certainly not her brains: “Desperanto” (“the language of despair”) re-creates the disco skronk of Faithfull’s notorious “Why D’Ya Do It” without the righteous indignation, to disastrous effect. Harvey teammates Rob Ellis and Head similarly bungle a sturdy Damon Albarn song and a charming Jon Brion lullaby; Faithfull’s voice is just too weak to carry a tune without a narrative crutch. Luckily for you, the age of iconic chanteuse auto-tribute albums (Nancy Sinatra, Loretta Lynn, the Sixths) is coincident with the rise of iTunes. Unless you dig Nick’s poetry, grab the Polly songs and run.