Criminally underappreciated, 1997’s Twentieth Century Blues is easily one of Marianne Faithfull’s best recordings; it is also one of the best vocal pop albums to come out of the last twenty years. Before an appreciative audience at Paris’ New Morning, Faithfull and piano accompanist Paul Trueblood engage the formidable songbook of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, conjuring up tales of broken spouses and murderous whores, of jilted lovers and wistful femme fatales. Faithfull’s famously ravaged voice dominates throughout, chewing up her scenes like some louche daughter to Katherine Hepburn.
Musically, the album benefits greatly from its spare and intimate setting. Trueblood’s gentle playing is a welcome relief from the (slightly cheesy) overproduction of earlier Faithfull releases, and there is a merciful lack of exposition on the vintage and cultural significance of these songs, which keeps everything sounding remarkably fresh. Harry Nilsson’s “Don’t Forget Me,” one of a handful of non-Weill/Brecht numbers and the album’s “newest” track, was already thirty years old at the time of recording. Even so, Faithfull renders its narrator as an unmistakable contemporary. In a somber tone that hints equally at yearning and defeat, she sings:
When we’re older and full of cancer
It doesn’t matter now, come on get happy
‘Cause nothing lasts forever
And I will always love you
The Weill and Brecht covers – which are a full two generations older – come off sounding edgy and raw, thanks in part to some exceptional translations provided by Frank McGuinness, who wisely chose to honour the harsh directness of Brecht’s original German. On “Pirate Jenny” (a Threepenny Operanumber dating from 1928!) the saltiness of the whore’s language perfectly compliments the pettiness of her murder fantasy:
And look out, lads, the town will be flat as the ground
This dirty shit hotel will be spared wreck and ruin
And you'll say, "Who’s the fancy bitch lives there?"
Faithfull, for her part, sings the role with ghoulish warmth, clearly relishing the deaths of her fellow townspeople:
Normal 0 false false false MicrosoftInternetExplorer4 Come the dot of twelve, it will be still in the harbour
When they ask me, "Well, who’s going to die?"
And you'll hear me whisper, oh so sweetly, "All of them!"
To many contemporary listeners, used to the emotionally “authentic” singing style of modern blues and rock vocalists, songs like “Pirate Jenny” will come as a revelation. Faithfull isn’t asking the listener to identify with Jenny’s bloodlust, or to suppose that the singer is in fact a sociopathic prostitute. Through the intelligence of her line readings, she instead leads the listener into an unsettling conversation, one between our own moral judgments and a unpleasant truth.
On “Surabaya Johnny,” Faithfull curses out an ex-lover with terrible ferocity:Normal 0 false false false MicrosoftInternetExplorer4
You said a lot, Johnny
All one big lie, Johnny
You cheated me blind, Johnny
From the minute we met
I hate you so, Johnny
When you stand there grinning, Johnny
Take that damn pipe out of your mouth, you rat.
The anguish and anger are palpable. Perhaps we admit that there is something righteous (or even heroic) in the nakedness of this woman’s expression. All the same, we are left feeling slightly repulsed: there is something ugly about her reaction that stops us from identifying with her. Who, after all, would readily believe themselves to be so pathetic or malicious? The listener again confronts a troubling discrepancy — that between their deluded belief in love’s general benignity and its harrowing potential. By making the conceit of this song compelling, Faithfull prevents us from easily shrugging off the emotional dilemma.
Perhaps it is this focus on artificiality and conceit, which finally sets 20th Century Blues apart from most contemporary pop. As a rule, today’s vocalists (Feist, Bon Iver, Robin Pecknold, to name just a few) try to collapse the difference between their emotional selves and their singing persona. Such an approach puts a high value on intuition and spontaneity, at the expense of vocal precision and deliberation. (In indie music circles, to label a singer’s style as “deliberate” can in fact be a serious insult.)
Faithfull, on the other hand, wants to outline this singing persona as distinctly as possible. Her vocals are precise, and her many affectations are very deliberate. And whereas most pop singers like to boast of the freshness of their material, many of the songs on Blues had been part of Faithfull’s repertoire for decades — the title track was first performed in 1974; her first recording of “Ballad of the Soldier’s Wife” dates from 1985, when she covered it for a Kurt Weill tribute album, Lost in the Stars; and the European tour that spawned Blues, titled “An Evening in the Weimar Republic,” was itself the product of 1991 Gate Theatre production of The Threepenny Opera, featuring the combined talents of Faithfull, McGuinness and Trueblood.
By the time she appeared at The New Morning, then, Faithfull knew these songs inside and out, the protagonists, their perspectives, and everything in between. The resulting performance was — and remains — provocative, moving, and highly intelligent. What makes this album vital has to do with the nature of its intelligence, the way in which it provokes and moves us. Where so many singers have the effect of reducing their audience to a bevy of passive spectators, Faithfull gives us a job to do. We are asked to listen to each of these songs and consider what they have to say — but with the tacit understanding that not a single one of them can fully be trusted. In the best spirit of Brechtian theatre,Blues speaks out against the safety of our listening post and instead implores us to judge and intervene.
Ultimately, it is the very uniqueness of this approach that lends the album an unintended commemorative quality. Marianne Faithfull would continue her conversation with Weill and Brecht on the 1998 follow-up, The Seven Deadly Sins, but this time from within a classical framework, accompanied by the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra and male vocal ensemble. Only on 20th Century Blues did she bring the vitality of these songwriters — and the older, “artificial” musical sensibility they represented — to a broader, pop audience. Sadly, that audience responded with a shrug.