"I saw an angel with big tits and signed her." That's how Andrew Loog Oldham explained his decision to turn 17-year-old Marianne Faithfull, whom he discovered at an industry party in 1964, into a pop star. That this big-titted angel could actually sing was irrelevant. She had the exact right look: long blond bangs, pillowy lips, limpid gray eyes and -- duh! -- those all-important breasts. Oldham ordered Mick Jagger and Keith Richards to come up with her first single, and although they'd never written a song before, they obediently produced a hit: "As Tears Go By." An overnight celebrity, Faithfull ditched her husband; became Jagger's chief consort; indulged in casual sex with lots of famous people, including Richards and Brian Jones and their girlfriend Anita Pallenberg; and ingested huge quantities of controlled substances. It's no wonder she sounds, in recordings from this period, a little out of it, as if she doesn't understand the meaning of the words she's singing or, more likely, just doesn't care one way or the other. Her tremulous soprano is icicle-sharp, the ideal corollary to some weird male fantasy starring a convent girl turned hippie damsel, a boho aristocrat, an English Françoise Hardy. It's the pretty voice of a pretty girl, a study in emptiness, a cool and careful surface.
Faithfull spent the next couple of decades slashing away at this pretty surface -- literally, when she took a razor to her face, and figuratively, when a fateful encounter with Naked Lunch inspired her to become a street junkie. As Faithfull writes in her fascinating 1994 autobiography, she assumed control of her own image, but she nearly destroyed herself in the process: "The Baroness's Daughter, Pop Star Angel, Rock Star's Girlfriend ... even after the brutal bashing I'd given them, these demon dolls of myself would not go away. You couldn't just shed them by cutting off your hair or getting fat. Even getting arrested or becoming a junkie on the street didn't do it.... By the mid-seventies I had reluctantly come to the conclusion that if I was ever to obliterate my past I'd have to create my own Frankenstein, and then become the creature as well."
Faithfull found her Frankenstein in 1979 with the release of the brilliant, harrowing Broken English. Once pure and perfect as a prism, her voice was now hoarse, a full octave deeper, ravaged by cocaine and cigarettes. It cracks and breaks but perseveres, a survivor's voice that grows more beautiful the less pretty it gets. Although her subsequent records are of inconsistent quality, they're all interesting, all evidence of this hard-won battle to reclaim her identity and forge a unique interpretive style. Whether Faithfull's new image is an accurate reflection of her real personality is not for us to say, but it's certainly more complex and compelling than the one Oldham created for her.
Fast-forward to 2000: Vagabond Ways, Faithfull's new CD, wisely showcases her most noteworthy asset: that scratchy, passionate, hardscrabble voice. Working with longtime collaborator Barry Reynolds, Daniel Lanois and an array of great studio musicians (including Emmylou Harris, who contributes backing vocals to a Lanois composition), Faithfull and producer Mark Howard have assembled a stellar collection of songs, ranging from Roger Waters' desperate, paranoid waltz "Incarceration of a Flower Child" to Leonard Cohen's wry mock-anthem "Tower of Song." Faithfull co-wrote half the material, including the album's standout, "Electra," in which majestic, swooping strings, spooky vibes and slide guitar bolster Faithfull's burnished croak. The tone is smoky and atmospheric, a little dissolute-sounding, bleary and blurred. When Faithfull sings Cohen's lines "I was born like this, I had no choice/I was born with the gift of a golden voice," it's the distillation of an entire life, a grimly humorous appraisal of wisdom gleaned from accumulated fuck-ups. She understands what she's singing, and it means something now.