Polly Harvey and Nick Cave help create her most potent album since Broken English
Ever since Andrew Oldham discovered his “angel with big tits”, as he described the teenage Faithfull, the best moments in her career have come from being mentored by a strong, sympathetic figure who understood her talent and knew how best to showcase it. Oldham teamed her with a songwriting duo called Jagger-Richards, who came up with “As Tears Go By” for her then virginal voice. The late-’70s reinvention of Broken English was masterminded by Chris Blackwell, who brilliantly suggested she wrap her now ravaged vocal cords around such material as “The Ballad Of Lucy Jordan” and “Working Class Hero”. Her best album of the ’80s, Strange Weather, was conceived by Tom Waits and produced by Hal Willner. And in the ’90s, Angelo Badalamenti produced and added the music to her lyrics on A Secret Life.
On Before The Poison, Faithfull has two key collaborators in Nick Cave and PJ Harvey, and it’s particularly fascinating to hear her working so closely with another woman for the first time. Harvey wrote three tracks outright and co-wrote two more, and her presence is so forceful that songs such as “The Mystery Of Love.” and “My Friends Have” risk sounding like outtakes from her own Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea album. Yet Faithfull inhabits them so convincingly that it never becomes a takeover, more a case of the two women finding an intuitive connection.
The three collaborations with Cave are more democratic. He provides the music to Faithfull’s lyrics and clearly worked hard at creating the musical context to maximise the theatrical qualities in her delivery. In addition, Damon Albarn contributes “Last Song” and Jon Brion juxtaposes a fairytale-like melody to some dark Faithfull lyrics on the closer, “City Of Quartz”. Overall, the result is probably the most potent album she’s made since Broken English a quarter of a century ago.