Two songs that were love at first hear for me, both concerning love.
“The Greatest Bastard” is a pining plea to lost love, or love in the process of being lost. There’s no doubt the woman’s gone, but that’s not going to stop the guy in the song from hoping his words will persuade her to come back. He might not even want her back, really; more he just wants her to pay attention to his pain. He’s in the thick of it, in other words, blaming himself, blaming her, blaming fate, pausing for nostalgia (“We were good when we were good”) and the consolation of remembered sex (“I made you open up your wings/your legs and other things”), generalizing his own situation into a representation of the human condition, circling back again and again to an affecting admission of “I never meant to let you down.”
You can imagine this song being muttered over a pint glass, and if it lapses into drunken self-pity in spots, well, I’m more forgiving of drunken self-pity if delivered with an accent. Rice’s vocal is dramatic, histrionic, beginning with a whisper and building to a wordless shout over an orchestral swell after one last “I never meant to let you down.” Love fails, language fails, the voice keeps talking because it’s afraid of silence. It’s going to be a long night.
The first time my wife heard the Marianne Faithfull song she said something to the effect of, “Jesus, that’s horrible!” I’d argue Marianne sounded worse twenty-odd years ago on the “Broken English” album, when she was really digging into the ravaged quality of her vocals, but there’s no question this is an unpretty voice, ragged with time.
In the first verse of this song, that voice communicates calm acceptance, even wisdom. Over a folkie strum, it describes how far the singer has traveled, all the things she’s seen (bewilderingly, “the roman gateway to the tower/and the secret the holy land unlocks”), and shares what she’s concluded: “There’s nothing to it, I confess/It’s just love, more or less.”
Love as something seen clearly in black and white, love as something mutable and improvable, love as the engine (with a little help here and there) of human motivation: what a nice thing to hear such a lived-in voice describe. But then: other people! In the second verse, we find the singer pleading with a long-time lover not to “shrug off” their love, not to “throw it all away.” Even at her, ahem, advanced age, Marianne has not achieved the philosophical balance that first verse talks about, or if she has it doesn’t mean she’s still not in the thick of it just as much as her much-younger counterpart Damien Rice. By the time she comes around to the title phrase for the last time it seems less a credo than an exhausted sigh, a framing of an unsolveable mystery. This is not encouraging!