Review: Mitchell Cohen, Creem Mar 1980

“I never lied to my lover/But if I did I would admit it/If I could get away with murder/I’d take my gun and I’d commit it.”

LINES LIKE those, from ‘Guilt’, and others like “You go on and on/Like a blood stain” (‘Brain Drain’) or “Do you feel the panic?/ Can you see the fear?” (‘Witches’ Tune’) have, for the past few days and nights, been the trigger for unsettling dreams. Sung in a cracked, determined voice, framed by seamless, throbbingly modern music, the songs on Broken English (what a marvelous puzzle of a title) let it bleed. The album is provocative by design, courageous by necessity, brimming with reverberations.

Some of those reverberations are nostalgic, of course, calling up images of London c. 1965, girls with (in Billy Strayhorn’s lyric) “sad and sullen grey faces,” taut thighs and Yardley eyes, leading the lushest of lives. The Shrimpton sisters, Jane Asher, Sandie and Dusty, Anita and Marianne. Marianne, the girl on a motorcycle naked under leather, blonde and poignant, with a piccolo of a voice. As surely as the frilly, leggy pinups of WWII formed our fathers’ sexual ideals, these mod dollies did us in (is there even a need to mention that 1979’s keenest erotic jolt on film came from Quadrophenia’s dishy bird with the utterly perfect name Lesley Ash, skirt hiked, parka askew, having it off in a Brighton alley). And Marianne Faithfull, the teenaged discovery of Andrew Loog Oldham and the lady on Jagger’s arm, seemed so fragile when fragile meant – oh, the remembrance of sexism past – haveable.

What it really meant was breakable, and Faithfull broke (Cf. ’69’s ‘Sister Morphine’). This album, which is, in case I haven’t mentioned it yet, a work of strange and scary beauty, is no plea for tea and sympathy; when her voice fractures notes into drama-soaked nuggets of feeling, when the words get close to what we assume are the facts, we don’t recoil. Broken English could have been a look-away nail-biter, a Judy Garland wrist-jangling display of self-congratulatory “I’m still here” exhibitionism. Instead, through an understated combination of Patti Lee Smith’s zonked trance-chant swirls, Ian Dury’s demented disco, Nico’s vocal somnambulism, and as distinctively British a sensibility as the Clash’s, Faithfull has fashioned an album of diagonal lines –  war, witchcraft, domestic ruin, guilt, suicide, class and sex – that connect at the heart of a confessed “curious child” and a woman to whom promises don’t mean much anymore.

Move after move is right, even the ones that take Faithfull to the precipice. The constant percolating of a synthesizer and Marianne’s throaty singing turn Shel Silverstein’s ‘Ballad of Lucy Jordan’, a folk-country fable about suburban disappointment, into a piece far more affecting than you might expect; taken at a slow gallop, ‘Working Class Hero’ (why don’t more people cover late-and-post-Beatle Lennon songs?) ties Broken English to the prototype for therapeutic rock LPs and connects thematically (cultural and personal betrayal) to boot; the title track, written by Faithfull and her band, is elusive and cutting dance-rock; and guitarist Barry Reynolds’ ‘Guilt’, ignited by Steve Winwood’s instrumental traffic signals, is both bloody (“though it’s flowing in my veins it’s not enough”) and witty (“I never stole a scarf from Harrod’s/But if I did they wouldn’t miss it”). Much attention has been focused on ‘Why D’Ya Do It’, based on a poem of sexual jealousy by Heathcote Williams, but its music is pedestrian jamming on old chords, and its explicitness – “Every time I see your dick/l see her cunt in my bed…Why’d you spit on my snatch?” – is a bit overripe, especially since it’s surrounded by lines of staggering silliness (“You tied me to the mast of the ship of fools”).

“Though I know I done no wrong/ I feel guilt” is quite a distance from ‘As Tears Go By’ and ‘Come And Stay With Me’. A voice that sounded pale and submissive with romantic ennui has become dark and aware. Some of Broken English is brilliant in the way that Neil Young is at his most fevered, and in a way that is particularly female and attuned to Faithfull’s home country in a time that Margaret Drabble has called The Ice Age. There isn’t any money to buy roses, there is joy in danger, working class resentment, and if the song ‘Broken English’ isn’t specifically about Northern Ireland, it is emotionally. This album comes from out of the blue, is very much into the black, and is certainly one of a kind.