I had absolutely no idea what this record would be like before my first listen. It was the strength of my affinity for both artists rather than any hype that had me interested. Faithfull’s Broken English is one of my favourite records, and I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time listening to Ellis’s work, whether it’s his collaborations with Nick Cave or soundtracks like This Train I Ride. So I was a little surprised to discover that the collaboration between the two was performances of some of the world’s most famous Romantic poems set to music. And yet, whilst in some ways it was an unexpected listen, in others it delivers exactly what you would expect from these artists.
The songs aren’t musical adaptations of the poems, in the vein of Fairport Convention’s ‘To Althea From Prison’. Instead, they’re performances of the poems accompanied by music. I’m in favour of the latter description, in light of both Faithfull’s spoken word delivery and the nature of the interplay between her words and the music that Ellis conjures up.
It is not the spoken nature of her delivery alone that sways it for me. To believe that would be to consign artists like Ghostpoet, Art Brut, and indeed entire other genres to the status of non-music. But where in those artists there is a rhythmic and tonal interplay between their delivery of their words and the music that accompanies them (just think of the work of virtually every rap artist ever!), the relationship between the vocals and the music here is different.
Whilst Faithfull does find the internal rhythm that drives these poems, it is rarely as regular or as forceful as that found in the work of the artists mentioned above, and crucially it doesn’t match the rhythm of the music it accompanies. In part that is due to the music itself. Ellis leans more heavily on the playbooks of ambient and soundtracks than that of more popular musical forms. There are keys, strings and Ellis’s trademark violin, but their work is textural rather than melodic. Joined by electronic sounds and snatches of sampled sound, they create a mood rather than building a tune.
The effect is powerful. They lend further weight to Faithfull’s mesmerising readings of these poems. To find something new to say about some of the most famous poems in the English language is impressive. But the interplay between her croaky, rich performances and the soundscapes that Ellis creates is highly effective. On ‘Ode to a nightingale’ the hauntological synths capture the narcotic feel of the forest at night, rendering it a half-waking place of magic. The atonal strings on ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ subtly underscore the speaker’s confusion.
This won’t be for everyone. It’s definitely a niche proposition and probably won’t be the thing that forces a damascene conversion in the hearts of poetry sceptics. But there’s a lot to love here. Faithfull’s voice, which has grown ever more characterful over her storied life, works just as effectively without a melody to hang on. Ellis, operating more in a Brian Eno mode than I’ve heard him before, manages the delicate balance of complementing her readings without distracting from them. It’s not going to be played on Radio 1 or be getting an outing in any clubs, but it is a rich and rewarding listen. Although in some ways a departure from their previous work, it succeeds because of the qualities that has made their work so engaging throughout their careers.
Words by Will Collins