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Newly remastered Marianne Faithfull album still sounds inventive

Decades after the original release of Broken English, Marianne Faithfull's freshly remastered classic still sounds inventive, writes Nick Levine.

Marianne Faithfull, circa 1970.
Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images
Marianne Faithfull, circa 1970. Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

Broken English
Marianne Faithfull
Universal Import

Later this month, Marianne Faithfull will release a "deluxe edition" of Broken English, an album she recorded for Island Records in 1979. The handsome package includes a bonus disc of rare and unreleased material and a short film featuring three of the LP's songs. But the biggest draw remains the original eight-track album, now freshly remastered.

When first released, Broken English wasn't a chart-topping success. It peaked at 57 on the UK album chart and climbed no higher than 82 on the US Billboard 200. But for Faithfull, who hadn't made an appearance on either chart since 1965, this was still something of a comeback.

In 1979, it was pretty remarkable that she was releasing an album at all. Faithfull had enjoyed a briefly successful pop career in the 1960s, but it had been predicated on her infamous relationship with Mick Jagger. During the 1970s, her career and personal life crumbled as she fell victim to drug addiction.

She was still in the throes of addiction as she recorded Broken English. "I thought I was going to die, that this was my last chance to make a record," Faithfull says now. This feeling of "now or never" had a dramatic effect on her music.

Three years previously, Faithfull had released a relatively safe, country-flavoured album called Dreamin' My Dreams. Broken English is a very different beast. At the time, it was thrillingly contemporary, and even now it sounds crisp and inventive. The music is a patchwork of rock, funk, punk, disco and even reggae, with a prominent use of synthesisers that gives it a new wave edge.

Interestingly, these were a very late addition. The original mixes, which now appear on the bonus disc, have a more traditional rock sound than the ones eventually used. Back in 1979, with Broken English finished and ready to be pressed, Faithfull and producer Mark Miller Mundy decided that the music should be more modern and electronic. So at the 11th hour, they brought in a session musician to lay down extra keyboard and synth parts.

This was a brave move that paid off, but the instrument that defines Broken English will always be Faithfull's voice. On her 1960s hits As Tears Go By and This Little Bird, Faithfull had sung in a pristine soprano that matched her wide-eyed image.

By the time she recorded Broken English 15 years later, Faithfull sounded completely different. Years of smoking, drinking and drug abuse had taken a toll on her vocal cords, which had been damaged further by a severe case of laryngitis. As a result, she sang in a much lower register, with a tone that was harsh and rasping.

Faithfull's damaged timbre isn't to everyone's taste - at the time, one disapproving music critic wrote that she had "permanently vulgarised" her voice. But over the years, many others have been seduced by its brutal authenticity. Faithfull sounds like a hardened survivor, and this adds to the album's power.

Of the eight songs that make up Broken English, Faithfull has a writing credit on just four. But from start to finish, the album feels like a very personal statement.

She even pulls off a pair of cover versions that on paper look like terrible mistakes. One is John Lennon's Working Class Hero, an improbable choice from Faithfull, who was the daughter of an Austrian baroness. The other is a more obscure selection called The Ballad ofLucy Jordan, which had originally been recorded by Dr Hook & The Medicine Show in 1974. It's about a bored housewife, something which this singer had never been. Yet against the odds, Faithfull makes both songs work.

The album's six other songs are originals that play off Faithfull's own persona. Brain Drain contains very characteristic references to "silk" and "champagne". What's the Hurry is about an addict seeking a fix, a part Faithfull can play from experience. And Guilt features the ear-snagging line "I never stole a scarf from Harrods". There's no reason to doubt her honesty, but it's precisely the sort of crime - petty, but strangely glamorous - that Marianne Faithfull might be accused of.

On the album's title track, she even shows a political side. Broken English was inspired by a TV news bulletin about Ulrike Meinhof, a notorious German terrorist from the time. The world-weary Faithfull is unimpressed with Meinhof's exploits. "What are you dying for? It's not my reality," she sings bluntly.

That track's subject matter is unexpected, but another song on the album is genuinely shocking. It sees Faithfull assume the role of a betrayed lover, who responds by berating her partner with a series of profane recriminations. The lyrics were written by a poet called Heathcote Williams, who originally wanted Tina Turner to record them. Faithfull persuaded him that Turner would never agree and gamely set them to a punk-reggae backing. The result is the infamous Why'd Ya Do It. When Broken English came out, this song was banned in Australia and even now its lyrical content is mostly unprintable.

With perfect sequencing, Why'd Ya Do It appears right at the end of the album. This furious rant feels like a boiling point for the album's simmering stew of emotions, which range from anger and sadness to shame and desperation. It's not pretty, but it's honest and unflinching.

Three decades on from its original release, Broken English is widely acknowledged as Faithfull's greatest work and regularly appears on lists of essential albums. It's also had a significant and positive impact on her reputation.

Admittedly, Faithfull has never become a mainstream chart star, but she's toured regularly over the years and built up a substantial back catalogue; her most recent album, Horses and High Heels, came out in 2011. She's also attracted some illustrious collaborators, including Blur, Beck, Jarvis Cocker, PJ Harvey and Nick Cave.

Recently, an interviewer asked Faithfull how she felt about her 1979 classic, wondering whether she found it difficult to listen to? Faithfull's response was short and rather heartwarming: "No, I love Broken English."

Nick Levine is a freelance music journalist based in London.