When last heard from, Marianne Faithfull was playing the devil in Robert Wilson’s stage version of The Black Rider, making Faustian bargains with unsuspecting mortals. You could call that typecasting, given Faithfull’s image of wizened decadence. On the other hand, you can imagine Faithfull herself making a perverse deal with some nameless underworld figure to attain that amazing voice of hers. At age 58, Faithfull’s ravaged cackle bears virtually no resemblance to the teenage ingenue who warbled “As Tears Go By” way back in 1964. But even though it ain’t pretty, Faithfull’s voice will stick with you long after you’ve forgotten all the smooth, glossy voices you hear on the radio.
“Before The Poison” finds Faithfull working with four co-writers — spiritual heir PJ Harvey and kindred spirit Nick Cave along with two wild cards, Blur’s Damon Albarn and Aimee Mann collaborator Jon Brion — on ten minor-key songs that don’t sound meant to be heard before dark. Cave’s songs cut the deepest, Harvey’s fit Faithfull like a glove, and Albarn’s “Last Song” is as lovely a tune as Faithfull has recorded in a quarter-century.
For all the outside input, however, it’s impossible to hear Faithfull sing anything without taking it as autobiographical. She ponders the crazy mysteries of love, life, children and how friends can turn into enemies, leaving little doubt she’s lived through all that and more. Before The Poison is an album of scars, well-earned and worn proudly.