Faithfull's home territory is that of the wounded lover, the sort given voice by old-style continental singers like Edith Piaf and Serge Gainsbourg. Like them, Faithfull elevates the trials of romance to a masochistic religion, and reduces the props of civilization to a delivery system for the pursuit of animal ecstasy. It's a nasty world with the animals, though, and she always keeps at least one eye in darkness, with dramatic turns like "Electra" and the cynical "File It under Fun from the Past."
In the opening title track of the album, Faithfull tells the first-person tale of a hard-living woman who refuses to apologize for the only thing she can call her own, her self-destruction. "I drink and I take drugs/I love sex and I move around a lot/I had my first baby at 14/And yes, I guess I do have vagabond ways." It is a defiantly fatalistic confession, and the listener's verdict matters not at all. Then the point of view shifts suddenly to third person, describing an older woman who "died of the drink and the drugs," who may be the narrator's mother, passing down her curse, or the narrator herself, some undefined time later.
Vagabond Ways' bravura piece, Faithfull's amazing cover of Roger Waters' "Incarceration of a Flower Child," is done up in full Wall-era Pink Floyd style, with tom-toms, choirs, and doomy, minor- key piano. Her vampiric delivery magnificently retells the dark side of the peace and love decade: "Don't get up to open that door/Just stay with me here on the floor/It's gonna get cold in the 1970s." Waters' baroque, bleak portraits of drug mania and spiritual desolation are getting more and more appealing as '70s album-oriented-rock overkill (which lasted well into the '90s) recedes into the past. Faithfull's treatment of this one may be just what it takes to get some aging punk rockers to give Floyd's later work its once-a-decade listen.
Faithfull's critically acclaimed Broken English, from 1979, never worked for me. I always felt it strained toward a jagged, arty effect with thin arrangements that only fought what Faithfull does best, which is draw you in and lay down a vibe. She did much better with her brief appearance on the soundtrack to Alan Rudolph's Trouble in Mind, where she was for a precious few minutes the very embodiment of love-worn sorrow, supplying the film with the only soul it had. Sketchy collaborators like Steve Winwood and Angelo Badamenti have always wasted Faithfull's resources on record. But on Vagabond Ways the subtle instrumentation matches her talent. Shit, she even makes an Elton John/Bernie Taupin song sound good. The album was produced by Mark Howard, but more credit may belong to Daniel Lanois, who contributes an outstanding song, "Marathon Kiss." The masterful understatement here is very similar to the approach Lanois took as producer of Emmylou Harris' 1997 Wrecking Ball. Harris is present here as well, singing background vocals, as required by law for every record made in the state of California. Like Harris, Faithfull is a creature born of the pre-Pet Sounds rock world: She is primarily a voice, though she writes like a pro when she takes her turn. She has for so long been working at the bottom of her artistic range, with producers who didn't know what to do with her, that one regrets what might have been. On this release her place in the flow seems so natural, one cannot help but feel (Lanois' accomplishments aside) that a great deal of the directions this record takes must have been her own.
Faithfull keeps the knives and the rope out of sight until the last piece, thus using them to great effect. "After the Ceasefire" is spoken word, the kind of difficult, dramatic song that made Broken English such a pain in the ass to listen to. But by closing Vagabond Ways with this harsh portrait of a couple trapped in mutual obsession, the delicate, slightly menacing ambiance built over the course of 10 songs is sent home with an elegant finality.