#17: Marianne Faithfull – "Broken English" (1979)

There are two things I know about Marianne Faithfull, and they are Mick Jagger and heroin. I mean, that’s not great general knowledge, right there. Mick Jagger is far enough from my sphere of interest. So far, I’ve rather done Marianne Faithfull a disservice.

Based on those two facts, before listening to Broken English I was also aware of a third thing: that this album was recorded at a very turbulent time in her life and is therefore in Heroin Voice. Heroin Voice involves not being able to hit half the notes. I’ve not actually got any experience of heroin. To be honest, I’m not very good with needles.

Broken English is the shortest album I’ve reviewed for Mookbarks so far, with eight tracks clocking in at just 37 minutes, or one very moderate double-sided LP. The biggest impression I get from Broken English is that it definitely has an A side and a B side, and of the two, the A is vastly more confessional and the B is vastly more good.

What do you do if you’re much better known for someone you’ve slept with a decade ago, and the fact that you’ve gone through some very dark times since then? I don’t know what the most expected answer would have been in 1979, but these days it’s a no-brainer: you aggressively curate your image, or you have someone else curate it for you. And that’s what the first half of Broken English sounds like – it sounds very biographical. I just know that “Brain Drain”, that “Guilt”, sound like they’re being presented to build a narrative. They’re setting a record straight. I genuinely don’t know how truthful they are. I like them – “Brain Drain” in particular has a jazz sort of looseness to it that is acceptably easy listening. But “Guilt” sounds… well, it’s either very confessional, or it’s a very blatant ploy. And either way, even as I guess I like it, I don’t trust it. It feels sly, is how it feels.

Maybe it’s just the sort of thing I can imagine being heavily engineered these days.

The second half changes direction completely. Luckily it’s very much for the better – not least because there are a lot more third person narratives going on here. The plot of “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan” reminds me of a staple of my teenagerdom, Kirsty MacColl’s “Miss Otis Regrets”. For a while, I thought it was that flash of familiarity that made me finally start to relax into Broken English – but no, I genuinely think this is just where it gets properly good. “Lucy Jordan” is a departure from the navel gazing of the previous seventeen minutes. The disappointing thing is that Faithfull’s voice has a similar sort of tone to MacColl’s, it’s just… weaker. This is where it becomes clear that – at least on this album – Faithfull can’t really belt. Heroin voice. Oh, Marianne.

Likewise, “What’s the Hurry?” is great fun, and it’s well arranged – but it needs the voice of someone like Debbie Harry. It needs a bit of vocal oomph to it. “What’s the Hurry?” with a stronger vocalist would be right up there with the sort of thing you want to listen to on a clear stretch of motorway. I’m a bit wistful for those heights it could have reached.

The cover of John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero” is a particular highlight, partly because it feels refreshingly straightforward. There are heavy shades here of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, both in terms of sentiment and of atmosphere – The Wall came out a few months before Broken English, and I don’t believe that can possibly be a coincidence. Incidentally, this is a bloody good cover. It’s got a nice bit of classic Lennon seethe to it – and actually, Faithfull’s voice works rather well here. Is that a compliment? I don’t even know. All I know is that it’s so far removed from the first half of the album. Honestly, this B side blows the A side out of the water.

And then finally, after I’ve spent a solid three tracks feeling vaguely sorry for Marianne Faithfull, she finishes off with “Why’d Ya Do It”, and it’s by far both the foulest-mouthed and the most characterful thing on this whole damn album. This is bold, dramatic, unapologetic. It’s also the best use of Faithfull’s voice. It sounds like she’s having fun – there’s even a bit of that belting I wanted. At any rate, it makes “Guilt” look like a wet fish. End on a high point, I guess, but why’d she leave this vicious little gem til last?

I don’t know what I think, you know. Half of this album is special. Half of it you can keep. All of it makes me a bit sad for what might otherwise have been. If you find anyone who’s done a good cover of “What’s the Hurry?”, you just point that thing in my direction.