Negative Capability is the 21st album by Marianne Faithfull and the most emotionally powerful of her 54-year recording career. Facing down arthritis and bolstered by collaborators including Warren Ellis, Nick Cave, Rob Ellis, Ed Harcourt and Mark Lanegan, Negative Capability is charged with brutal honesty and autobiographical reflection as she addresses losing old friends, her loneliness living in her adopted city of Paris, and love.
Driven by her supernatural reinterpretative skills, florid lyricism, battle against the pain she lives with, and realised with her stellar group of musicians, Negative Capability is Marianne’s unflinchingly honest and relentlessly beautiful late-life masterpiece. The stark emotional heft, exquisitely framed by ornately sensitive musical backdrops can only be likened to the late-life works by Johnny Cash or Leonard Cohen.
“It’s the most honest album I’ve ever made,” she says. “I’ve always tried not to reveal myself. There’s nothing like real hardship to give you some depth. I’ve had terrible accidents and I’m really damaged. It’s changed my life forever. I’m in a lot of pain and worked really hard to get strong so I can do my work. The great miracle is I was able to make this beautiful record. I really had no idea how it would turn out. I just jumped in and hoped I would be able to do it. This is all what’s happened to me since my life changed but obviously if I do something I must do it really well.
The record emphasises her unique place as a force of nature in the beating heart of modern music that started opening up after ‘Sister Morphine’ ignited her muse and was recorded by the Rolling Stones nearly fifty years ago. At that time she had enjoyed her pop career with hits such as ‘Come And Stay With Me’ and ‘This Little Bird’, before becoming the crown princess of the UK counterculture before grasping her artistic reins with the landmark Broken English in 1979.
Recorded at La Frette studio on the outskirts of Paris, Negative Capability is inexorably overshadowed by grief at losing close friends from the ‘60s such as Anita Pallenberg, Martin Stone and Cream album designer Martin Sharp. It’s produced by both Rob Ellis – the PJ Harvey producer who’s been Marianne’s collaborator for five years -and Warren Ellis from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Warren’s violin blesses songs such as ‘Misunderstanding’ and ‘Born To Live’ – her intensely moving eulogy to departed lifelong friend Anita – with the stark but lustrous autumnal beauty that makes the album.
The first single ‘The Gypsy Faerie Queen’ – inspired by Shakespeare’s ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ – was co-written with Nick Cave and features his vocals and piano playing.
“It’s a little miracle,” says Marianne. “I asked Nick if he would put music to it and he wrote back saying, ‘I’m so busy.’ I said, ‘I understand, sorry to bother you.’ Then he just wrote back, ‘Thank you so much for understanding; here’s the song.’ It’s just gorgeous.”
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No artist is going to say their latest album isn’t as good as their previous ones, but when Dunlop says he thinks Notes From An Island is his best to date, he’s not just spouting press release clichés. Again produced by Ed Harcourt, who also contributes bass, and featuring long-standing regulars Jacob Stoney on keys and drummer Fred Claridge alongside guest musicians Archie Churchill-Moss on accordion and violinists Tom Moore and Gita Langley, it strikes both personal and socio-political notes, the Island of the title a reference to both himself and post-Brexit Britain (as well as a riff on Bill Bryson’s celebrated travel memoirs). It’s also the first on which he gets to show off the virtuoso new guitar skills inspired by acquiring the new Gretsch on which most of the songs were written.
It opens with the heady, musically and metaphorically layered ‘Spices From The East’, a five-minute number that initially offers an image of two people sharing their love in cooking a meal together, folding in their spirits with the different ingredients, drinking in the aromas and sharing a plate together. However, as the music gathers from muted beginnings, so too do the lyrics take on a wider vision as they speak of the country’s colonial past and the opening up of trade routes and sea networks into Asia, generally through conflict, that continue to provide access to the titular spices. As such, it speaks of colonial guilt but also, in this troubled refugee times, a call for a masala society in which “we are coalesced whenever we dine”. Interestingly, there are several references to the East throughout the album, with mentions of Persia and the rivers of Babylon.
Dunlop’s songs and frequently veined with melancholy, and mingling the sour with the sweet and here they predominantly centre around negative experiences with bruised and broken relationships. Even so, his take can often be wry. Cases in point being the next two tracks. Taken at a measured pace with simply repeated guitar riff throughout, the organ gradually filling out the sound, ‘Feng Shui’ deals with relationship breakup and the four walls that holds the memories and “the scars from when we threw things acrossthe room”, his mom suggesting he try Feng Shui and rearrange the furniture in the hope of doing the same with his emotions, the song extending to concern the need to redecorate your lives when the relationship wallpaper starts to peel.
More playfully, opening with Harcourt’s jangling 60s folk-rock guitar, ‘Sweet On You’, the poppiest and most commercial thing he’s ever recorded, is about, as he explained at a live show I caught, about a misguided short-lived teenage crush (“Knew you for two years and by the end of the first the writing was on the wall”) on a self-absorbed friend (the lyric is actually ambiguous as to the gender, though he notes how they “started giving time to the girl I gave my heart to”) with a nose for trouble and who, more importantly, in its memorable references to Ry Cooder, didn’t share his musical tastes, the song ending with the confession that “If I had the choice between you and your mother, I know which one I’d choose”. I’d suspect a touch of Buddy Holly influences might have been at work here.
The mood shifts to a more late night bluesy ambience for ‘I Do’, plangent piano notes, bass and a sparse drum beat underpinning a song that revisits the break up in ‘Feng Shui’, an angsty confessional of wanting to be rid of “every liar I’ve been seeing in the mirror at the end of our bed” but wracked by the thought that “I’ll never find anyone fit to hold a candle to you”. In many ways it’s very stoically British, the affair deemed “rather regrettable” and with a deliberately overwritten line in ‘If only I’d lent her my ocular system’s true appraisal of that tight fitting dress” or, to put it another way, “yes, your bum does look big in that”.
Fingerpicked acoustic guitar carries along the folksier ‘One and the Same’, the drums making an entrance midway to beef it up alongside Langley’s violin that seeks to find common ground in shared pain, his voice soaring to falsetto at the end of lines, his intricate Thompson-influenced guitar work again in evidence on the musically uncluttered ‘Within My Citadel’, another infectious melody and bout of self-analysis about going with the wind in order to have a sense of belonging, of building walls to keep from hurt and of, perhaps, prolonged adolescence as he sings about “remnants of a boyhood in disguise.”
Returning to that broken home, the need to move on but being stuck in limbo and smiling for the camera, ‘Nothing Good’ is a slow waltz ballad that paves the way for ‘Threadbare’, another number, its Fleetwood Mac melodic groove enhanced by the West Coast-like guitar pattern, organ swirls, Moore’s violin and Brooke Sharkey’s backing vocals, about love unravelling (and with another mirror reference) and the need to get back on the horse as he sings “I don’t know what love is but I know that it’s out there”.
Melodeon to the fore, ‘Green Liquor’ has a choppy percussive guitar rhythm as he returns to political commentary, the song addressing the paradox of London’s East End where the homeless seek shelter and while buildings stand empty, “earnest for the ghost of a resident”.
It’s back, then, to the fraught dynamics of love with the sparsely arranged ‘Pallet and Brush’ that uses the conceit of him sitting for a painting “coloured by all of my ills” as a relationship metaphor, “our faces disfigured/Forbidding each other to speak.” Although sharing the imagery of distance, love of a different nature shapes ‘Wed To Arms’, a post-Brexit metaphor about conflicting feelings for his country (“I am wed to her charms… but she’s wed to arms”), an island on an island, and the course on which it is set as “we sail the seas of isolation” like “the North Atlantic Drift”.
Maybe it’s that disillusionment that leads the album to end with ‘Cobalt Blue’, an intimate voice and electric guitar that looks for, if not salvation and redemption, then to at least “both go down together” as he sings of his waking freewheeling from a dream of Melbourne and of ploughing Van Dieman’s Land, the penal colony island off south eastern Australia to which convicts from Britain were transported. You know the healing may have begun when you can see the sky and not the ceiling.
Paradoxically, an album that turns it mind to personal and national isolation it may well prove the one that expands the horizons of audience awareness and appreciation far beyond his present borders.
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As anyone who has read her poetry will know, Sylvia Plath was not someone to whom you would turn for light, uplifting escapism. Suffering from clinical depression for most of her life, less than a year after separating from husband and fellow poet Ted Hughes, following his adultery, Plath stuck her head in an oven and committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning. A month prior to this, she had published her only novel, under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas (it would not be credited to Plath for a further four years), The Bell Jar, a semi-autobiographical work about one Esther Greenwood, dealing with themes of female social identity, oppressive patriarchy, mental illness and suicide, which has become regarded as a classic of modern literature.
In 2013, New Writing North commissioned Williams to write something about Plath for the Durham Book Festival’s celebrations marking the novel’s 50th anniversary. Her re-reading the book, led to the performance of five songs at Durham Town Hall last October in company with writer and Plath biographer Andrew Wilson. However, that was not to be the end of it. Finding herself caught up with the characters, Williams continued to explore them in song, culminating in a further three numbers. Taking all eight into the studio with friend, producer and engineer Ed Harcourt (who also provides harmonies), she emerged with this album, its title referring (clearly metaphorically) to an insufficient supply of oxygen supply, a ninth song, ‘Cuckoo’, adding itself to the total courtesy of a Harcourt collaboration.
As you might imagine, it’s not an easy listen, the imagery frequently dark, the music, largely encompassing (sometimes treated) acoustic and electric guitars, bass and piano with atmospheric use of sound effects, often as spare and edgy as it is melodic.
The woozy, shimmering opening track, ‘Electric’, is a deceptively pretty, sweetly sung number that actually alludes to ECT, an electroconvulsive therapy used to shock patients out of depressive states. Things then shift into musically experimental territory with the bluesy trip-hop ‘Mirrors’, shuffling, percussive scratchy loops providing a backdrop to brief forays of heavy piano and fractured guitars, Williams’ vocal looping reflecting the thematic idea of Esther’s identity beginning to fragment.
The tension coils in the cobwebby feel of the spooked, pulsingly minimalist ‘Battleships’, a reference to the classic grid guessing game where you seek to destroy your opponent’s fleet, the lyrics talking of the ticking time bomb of the mind and featuring the striking line about how a poem “stuck like sick in my throat”.
Written from the perspective of Esther’s emotionally wounded mother, ‘Cuckoo’ is a dreamy, keyboards-based number that speaks of how she feels her unconditional love has been taken for granted (“when you got hurt you ran to your dad, you were never someone I felt I had”), that she no longer truly knows her child (“I couldn’t pick you out in a crowd”) and how she thinks she will be held responsible for Esther’s illness “my little girl’s gone mad and who will they blame but me?”).
The delicately sung ‘Beating Heart’, brushed by hushed guitar and distant piano and with the repeated refrain of “I am, I am, I am, I am”, introduces themes of suicide as Esther recalls how her attempts to kill herself have been confounded by her body’s determination to survive. The brooding ‘Tango With Marco’ is a specific reference to a key incident in the novel, where Esther’s blind date with the misogynistic Marco culminates in attempted rape (“if I shout out in pain, you’d call it a good fuck” whispers Williams), the experience evoked by the contrast between romantic Spanish guitar and the jittery percussion.
Heading into the final stretch, the bass underpinned ‘When Nothing Meant Less’ is a sparsely arranged poignant confessional, resigned reflection on two lives that, one measured against each other, have gone separate but similar ways, both experiencing mental collapse and suicide attempts (“I read about the time you took some pills, you balanced on a ledge”) , the protagonist noting how “when you thought I was strong, I always knew you were wrong. I always balanced on the edge.” However, unlike Esther, the friend appears to have overcome her problems, as she sings “I don’t even know how your story ends, ‘cos you turned a corner and I stayed on the bend.”
The album’s only uptempo track, with its soaring vocals ‘The Mind Has Its Own Place’ is a piano-led, brushed drums carnival waltzing call to sisterhood arms to rise above sexism and the expectations and demands of patriarchal society, even if only by retreating into your own mind and self. Carrying over that note and shifting musical ground, the album comes to a beautiful, reflective and cathartic close, with the country-flavoured dreamily waltz ‘Part Of Us’, Williams softly crooning that “you don’t have to be alone, misunderstood, ‘cos I read a book last night and I felt loved, loneliness was never a part of us.” Whether you’ve read The Bell Jar or not, these sentiments and the album as a whole are ones with which it is easy to identify and, after all the darkness, bring you out into the light. “If you’re gonna tell a story, then make it good”, sings Williams. She has, and then some.
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