Artist anonymous

Nick Cave, soundtrack-maker

The forthcoming film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's post-apocalyptic novel The Road is the third proper movie for which Nick Cave has composed an entire soundtrack (working with his fellow Bad Seed/Grinderman, Warren Ellis. (As well as The Proposition (2005) and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), Cave and Ellis have also scored two relatively obscure documentaries, The English Surgeon and The Girls of Phnom Penh , released in 2007 and 2009 respectively. A selection of their soundtrack work, White Lunar, was released on Mute in September of this year. As Pitchfork put it in their review, "it's good to have it all in one place."

That record (and, indeed, Cave's excellent second novel,published earlier this year) offers yet more evidence for something the New Statesman's film critic, Ryan Gilbey, was arguing back in March of 2006: "The diversity of this singer-songwriter-actor-novelist-poet is almost unprecedented in the music industry. Dylan's memoirs were sparkling, Captain Beefheart can paint and Tom Waits is a wonderfully minimalist actor. But few performers spread themselves across so many media without spreading themselves thin. Cave is different."

Cave's work on The Road represents, I think, more than just another addition to an ever-expanding body of work: it amounts to a real breakthrough. Having seen the film last week, I can testify that for possibly the first time ever, Cave has succeeded in making his contribution to a project almost entirely anonymous. There is no unnecessarily-distracting cameo here (see the saloon singer in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford); no barely-disguised manifestation of Cave himself (see Bunny Munro in The Death of Bunny Munro); no multi-disciplinary contribution (Cave didn't just soundtrack The Proposition, he wrote it). Just a simple, relatively sparse score, that didn't receive a single mention in the 26 pages of production notes I was handed.

And said soundtrack is, in fact, itself relatively anonymous. Melting in and out of scenes, it is only explicitly present when accompanying monologues (lifted, I should add, directly from McCarthy's text). And even then, it is Ellis's violin, and not Cave's piano, that takes centre-stage (the opposite was the case with Jesse James) -- indeed, Cave's contribution to the film is limited to an array of elegantly arranged arpeggios. As Geoffrey MacNab rather crudely put it in his Independent review of The Road, "the music . . . is likewise understated. We don't hear Cave wailing out Murder Ballads."

This all sounds like an extremely backhanded compliment. It's not. In many ways, Cave's slightly megalomaniacal approach to creativity represented the only remaining ground for criticising his work (Bad Seeds purists have been known to bemoan the absolute control Cave took of songwriting responsibilities after 1994's Let Love In). The Road proves that the man really can do anything -- even, that is, take a back-seat.

 

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Beware of tea: the cuppa has started wars and ruined lives

. . . and it once led F Scott Fitzgerald to humiliate himself.

A drink sustains me – one that steams companionably as I write. It is hot, amber and fragranced differently from any wine; nor does it have wine’s capacity to soften and blur. I’ve never understood how the great drunks of literature, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and their like, ever put anything on the page more worthwhile than a self-involved howl, though even Hemingway apparently finished the day’s writing before beginning the day’s drinking.

Tea is more kindly, or so I’d always thought. Those aromatic leaves, black or green, rolled and dried and oxidised, have some of wine’s artistry but none of its danger. Even their exoticism has waned, from a Chinese rarity (“froth of the liquid jade”), for which 17th-century English traders were made to pay in solid silver, to a product that can be found dirt cheap on supermarket shelves.

There are even home-grown teas now. The Tregothnan estate in Cornwall has supplemented its ornamental rhododendrons and camellias with their relative camellia sinensis, the tea plant, while Dalreoch in the Scottish Highlands grows a white (that is, lightly oxidised) tea, which is smoked using wood from the surrounding birch plantations. Tellingly, this local version is priced as steeply as the imported rarity once was.

I enjoy a simple, solitary mug, but I also appreciate communal tea-drinking – the delicate tea warmed with water at 85°C (a little higher for sturdier black blends), the teapot and china, the pourer volunteering to be “mother”, as if this were a liquid that could nurture. But in reality, tea is not so gentle.

Those long-ago English traders disliked haemorrhaging silver, so they started exporting opium to China from India and paying with that. This was a fabulous success, unless you happened to be Chinese. In 1839, a commissioner attempted to clamp down on the illegal and harmful trade, and the result was the Opium Wars, which the Chinese lost. “Gunboat diplomacy” – a phrase that surely constitutes froth of a different kind – won England a great deal of silver, a 150-year lease on Hong Kong and an open tea market. China received a potful of humiliation that may eventually have helped spark the Communist Revolution. As many of us have recently realised, there is nothing like economic mortification to galvanise a nation to kick its leaders.

Later, the tea bush was planted in India, Ceylon and elsewhere, and the fragrant but bitter brew for the upper classes became a ubiquitous fuel. But not an entirely sweet one: just as the opium trade ensured our tea’s arrival in the pot, the slave trade sweetened it in the cup. Even today, conditions for tea workers in places such as Assam in north-east India are often appalling.

Scott Fitzgerald also had tea trouble. When invited round by Edith Wharton, he frothed the liquid jade so assiduously with booze beforehand and risqué conversation during (a story about an American tourist couple staying unawares in a Paris bordello) that he was nearly as badly humiliated as those 19th-century Chinese. Wharton, unshocked, merely wondered aloud what the couple had done in the bordello and afterwards pronounced the entire occasion “awful”.

Some would blame his alcoholic preliminaries, but I’m not so sure. Tea has started wars and ruined lives; we should be wary of its consolations. On that sober note, I reach for the corkscrew and allow the subject to drive me softly, beguilingly, to drink.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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