Marianne Faithfull has loved as deeply and lived as tragically as any of England’s celebrated romantic poets of yore, but unlike most of them, she has lived to tell her tales. So on She Walks in Beauty, a spoken-word collaboration with violinist/songwriter Warren Ellis on which she recites some of her favorite entries from Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, her warm, lived-in voice finds new depths in verses by Lord Byron, John Keats, Percy Shelley, William Wordsworth, and others.
When she reads a line like “My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains my sense” in Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale,” she does so with a sense of knowledge from hard-worn years of crushing life experience that the poet, who died at age 25 of tuberculosis, would never know. She delicately and masterfully enunciates every syllable, and her voice lifts and drops with the right measure of world-weariness. Similarly, when encountering a couplet like, “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!” in Shelley’s “Ozymandias” — verses he wrote about placard on a statue of Ramesses II — it’s sobering in a way the poet, who died at age 29, merely hoped it would be. And when she recites Lord Byron’s “So We’ll Go No More a Roving,” it’s with a sense of resignation the poet only started to understand by his death age 36.
These performances are similar to the way Faithfull has reinterpreted her signature song, “As Tears Go By,” over the years. She first sang the tune, which was the first composition by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, at age 17, and revisited it again at ages 40 and 71. Each successive rendition added a new depth to Jagger’s words, which seemed weary beyond his years, and her most recent version, off her Negative Capability record in 2018 — recorded decades after he voice deepened into a lilting, glorious alto — made the song all the more profound. But it’s not just Faithfull’s readings that make She Walks in Beauty extraordinary.
The reason it’s so effective its because it’s the full package: Faithfull’s devastating voice, the poets’ brilliant verses, and delicate ambient music, performed by her collaborators — Ellis, Nick Cave, and Brian Eno, among others. These backdrops shimmer and swell around her voice, and bells chime distantly and birds chirp in the fuzzy gauze. It’s beautiful and captivating. The only downside, if there is one, is that with so much happening at once, She Walks in Beauty is best taken in small doses to appreciate its majesty.