Album: Marianne Faithfull with Warren Ellis – She Walks In Beauty review

by Maria Sledmere

Marianne Faithfull’s latest record is more than poetry from the Romantic canon set to Warren Ellis’ soundscapes – it is an experience

‘Beauty’ writes Timothy Morton in Realist Magic: Objects, Ontology, Causality (2013), ‘is a nonviolent experience of near death, a warning that one is fragile, like everything else in the universe.’ Beauty reminds us that something inside is trembling very closely with something outside: think of the operatic note that shatters the glass by frequency of sound alone. Can you be inside beauty? At the suggestion of her collaborator, Nick Cave, Marianne Faithfull took Lord Byron’s poem, She Walks in Beauty, as the title of her most recent album: a spoken, ambient foray into the ‘dark and bright’ of Romantic poetry. Recorded prior to and through the first UK Covid-19 lockdown, She Walks in Beauty features eleven interpretations of poems from the likes of John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, William Wordsworth and Lord Alfred Tennyson. With Warren Ellis, Brian Eno and Nick Cave providing sonic accompaniment, Faithfull recites cherished cuts from Palgrave’s Golden Treasury. The result is a multidimensional scoring and replay of Romantic classics and eccentric favourites – exploring resonant themes of beauty, elegy, grief and longing. 

At the heart of it all is Faithfull’s iconic voice, whose spoken delivery carries grace and what Wordsworth elsewhere calls ‘the heavy and the weary weight / Of all this unintelligible world.’ Halfway through recording in spring 2020, Faithfull contracted Covid-19 and spent three weeks in intensive care. That she recovered to finish the album is testament to the NHS staff who treated her and to her own ‘intense desire to stay alive,’ as she explains in the liner notes. What beauty we find in these poems is charged with human vulnerability, survival and a measured sense of ‘living on.’ The whole project works as a gift, whose cost is a realisation of the sorrows, perils and hauntings we variously share. I feel humbled to listen to the weight of familiar words in Faithfull’s expression: with its weathered tones, its heavy yearning, its empathic landscapes of warm intonation. Short poems such as Shelley’s To the Moon have their topographies expanded in musical duration and echo. That opening line, which crystallises in Faithfull’s refrain, ‘Art thou pale for weariness?’ could be directed at a person, at us, as much as the moon. Listening halfway through another hard year, I feel softly held by such phrases. They offer a sort of emotional permission and companion for wandering. 

Listening closely to the subtleties of Ellis’ music concrete, to Faithfull’s lyric cadence, I fancy I’m moving through a room whose images are strange and wild and come from dreams. The word ‘stanza’ (each group of lines in a poem) comes from the Italian word for ‘room.’ As in a dream, the stories and encounters of these poems undergo the cyclical and blurring effects of a mind at work and whir. Ambient sounds, loop treatments, future and boomerang strings, synths, celestes, vibes and piano are just some of the instruments that weave through each piece. In his 1978 manifesto for ambient music, Brian Eno wrote of ‘immersion’: ‘we were making music to swim in, to float in, to get lost inside.’ The impulse towards immersion is a hunger for sensory intimacy that only intensified during the lockdown conditions of the pandemic. As we drift through a strange and estranging world of sirens and birdsong, there is always that ‘toll’ which Keats describes in the word ‘Forlorn!’: ‘the very word is like a bell.’ The word ‘forlorn’ also occurs in Wordsworth’s Surprised by Joy: a sonnet for love’s resilience in the face of ‘grievous loss.’ In lieu of another bad news notification, there is that chime of recognition: a word. With careful delivery, Faithfull holds us to it. Ellis’ looping, melancholic violin holds us in the shivering volta – the turn and return of loss. I’m reminded of Denise Riley’s Time Lived, Without Its Flow (2012) – a book which writes about grief as ‘an altered condition of life’: ‘that acute sensation of being cut off from any temporal flow’ when ‘living in suddenly arrested time,’ following a loved-one’s death. These are songs and poems which ache with time: the time between their writing in a former century, between Faithfull’s initial encounter with them as a schoolgirl and her reading them now, before the pandemic started and within its ongoingness.

She Walks in Beauty allows us to feel, in form and content, the temporal, emotional terrains of grief and love in their shifting, their stasis and turns. The album’s instrumental accompaniments are tender and expansive, rather than directive or narrative. Delightfully, the album comes with a hardback book which holds poems, liner notes and CD, alongside the atmospheric watercolours of Colin Self (which also illustrate the lyric video for title track She Walks in Beauty). Sleeved by end pages of a deep blue pigment, the physical object of this project could leave a deep blue trace on your skin, as the poems leave a deep blue trace in your brain. If we are all (though in different ways) still living in a form of suspension, our rhythms altered, this is an album in which we might float inside another room, another voice, another love — a flicker of colour seen differently. 

Faithfull’s previous album was named after Keats’ concept of Negative Capability: which he describes as ‘capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason,’ where ‘the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration.’ She Walks in Beauty is not a diagnosis of the ‘human condition’ so much as the interlacing of Beauty through secret and palpable moments of shared experience with others, including the more-than-human: the moon, the nightingale, the waterlily and fruit-tree wild. For all abundance of ‘nature’ in these poems, we feel the lengthening shadow of climate change and global heating; for all their evocations of human desire, we feel the pained separations of social distance. And yet these are poems already haunted by their own impossibility: the mortal speaker of Ode to a Nightingale can only listen ‘in vain’ to the nightingale’s transcendent song; the young, fair girl of The Bridge of Sighs is already ‘Weary of breath’ and ‘Gone to her death.’ To listen, we experience beauty as a many-wounded and wounding thing – a kind of gap between what we are and not, and within ourselves what Morton calls a ‘Rift.’ 

The album’s final poem of choice is Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott, in which our heroine announces that she is ‘“half sick of shadows.”’ Cursed to spend her days weaving images of the world upon her loom, the Lady of Shalott lives cursed and sequestered in a tower, where she is only allowed to access the outside through its mirror reflection. She exists in a time of weave – not flow; her materials are images, not things-in-themselves. Many times, lately, I have gone out to walk at night, after hours in pixel-lit Zoomland, listening to She Walks in Beauty with Faithfull’s voice performing its hauntings astride me. The actual night with its light pollution, its blips and signals, is lent dimension by Ellis’ synths and the ambient domain of sound which transforms my relationship to space. I listen to this record, attuning in a cellular way to what is inside and outside me, the same. While these cuts are taken from a male-dominated Romantic canon, Faithfull’s interpretations leave a deep-blue trace which is inimitably hers (and think of that blue on the cover of 1979’s Broken English!). Keen listeners might want to extend their reading to the Elegiac Sonnets of Charlotte Smith, or the passionate, elemental and everyday poems of Anna Lætitia Barbauld. After a year or more of sheltering in place, enacting my days online, every communication enabled by hidden broadband cables, pixel light and tangled wires, I feel empathy for the Lady of Shalott and her endless weaving. If we are all in some ways ‘sick of shadows,’ She Walks in Beauty reminds us how to live in and with something: to taste the blue, to take the trembling risk of it.

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