Marianne Faithfull doesn't care about the upbeat. Her specialty is weariness, her approach guarded, her artistry surely and painfully earned. On her first album in nearly three years, she allies herself with fellow songsmiths P.J. Harvey and Nick Cave, who contribute marvelous work. So does Blur frontman Damon Albarn, whose "Last Song" is among the loveliest and most idyllic Faithfull has ever articulated.
By now, Faithfull can express almost anything -- not surprising, since this is the woman who sang the pastoral "As Tears Go By" and the mournful, fantastic "Sister Morphine" in the same decade -- the '60s.
For the past 25 years, however, Faithfull has been her own person: femme fatale, junkie, domestic goddess, and theatrical figure, all rolled into one. These personae come together here -- particularly in the tunes by Harvey. The Polly Jean tracks seem to burrow instantly into Faithfull's mind, whether they speak of love (the throbbing, urgent "The Mystery of Love"), companionship (the oddly calming "My Friends Have"), or generational kiss-offs (the affectionately dismissive "No Child of Mine"). The Cave tunes, helped by several Bad Seeds, are even darker and perhaps more strained; "Desperanto," a Heaven 17-styled rant against vibes gone particularly bad since 9-11, jars what otherwise is a wonderfully smooth, wonderfully disturbing album.
Faithfull's benchmark remains her startling 1979 LP Broken English, a singular declaration of feminist despair. But despite occasional lapses of tone (Faithfull's lyrics on "City of Quartz" are great, but Jon Brion's music is a tad dainty), Before the Poison comes up similarly long and timeless.