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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In Kid Gloves, the stories tumble out like washing from a machine

Adam Mars-Jones' has created a clever, stoical and cool account of caring for a dying father.

In bookish circles, it’s pretty commonplace these days to remark on the way in which the spirit of the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard hangs over our literary culture – noxious gas or enlivening blast of ­oxygen, depending on your point of view. Nor would I be the first critic to point out the similarities between his prolixity and that of the British novelist Adam Mars-Jones. Reviewing Knausgaard’s My Struggle in the New Yorker, James Wood likened its style – “hundreds of pages of autopsied minutiae” – to that of Mars-Jones’s novels Pilcrow and Cedilla, the first two volumes in a thus far unfinished project in “micro-realism”. But originality be damned: I’m going to say it anyway. As I read Mars-Jones’s new memoir, Kid Gloves: a Voyage Round My Father, it was Knausgaard I thought of repeatedly. Mostly, this was because I simply couldn’t believe I was so fascinated by a book that was at times so very boring.

Mars-Jones is by far the more elegant writer of the two. He is also feline where Knausgaard is only wide-eyed. Nevertheless, they clamber (slowly and with many pauses to consider the view) over comparable territory. What, after all, is Knausgaard’s account of the effect of milk on a bowl of ­cereal compared to Mars-Jones’s disquisition on the subject of orange juice? The Norwegian’s reverie is the longer of the two but it is Mars-Jones who is the more triumphantly banal. “Shopping on a Monday I saw a wide variety of types of orange juice on display in a supermarket and bought large quantities,” he writes early on. I love that “Monday” – it’s so precise. But it also prompts the question: which supermarket, exactly, was he in? Was it the same “large branch of Sainsbury’s” where, three paragraphs later, we find him picking up a carton of buttermilk?

You will think that I am taking the piss. I’m not – or not entirely. For all its pedantic weirdness, Mars-Jones’s memoir, clotted and rich and true, does its job rather well. As the subtitle suggests, at its heart is his tricky relationship with Sir William Mars-Jones, the high court judge who died in 1999. A clever man but also a difficult one (having made a bit of a leap in terms of education and social class, he clung rather ardently to certain comforting reflexes), he is brought to life vividly by his son, who often simply replays their most frustrating conversations. In doing so, Mars-Jones, Jr also tells us something of himself. He comes over as a bit silly and fastidious but also as clever, stoical, kindly and, above all, ever cool in the face of provocation. In this light, his Pooterish digressions are just another symptom of his unnervingly temperate personality, his clinical even-handedness.

His memoir is oddly artless, the stories tumbling out, one after another, like washing pulled from a machine. An account of his father’s better-known cases (he prosecuted in the Moors murders trial) shades into a detour on soup-making; an analysis of Sir William’s retirement – he gravitated, his son writes, towards the state of “inanition” – takes us, almost slyly, to an explanation of why Mars-Jones tenderly associates Badedas with shingles (a friend who had yet to discover he had Aids, of which shingles can be a symptom, bathed in it).

The reader waits, and waits, for the big scene, for the moment when Mars-Jones tells his father, a regular kind of homophobe, that he is gay. But in a strange way (it does arrive eventually) this is beside the point. From the outset, we know that it was Adam, not his brothers, who looked after his widowed father in his last days, sharing his flat in Gray’s Inn Square; so we know already that an accommodation has been reached, however horrifying Pater’s reaction was at the time. (Mars-Jones, Sr suggested that his son could not possibly be gay because, as a boy, he played with himself during a film starring Jacqueline Bisset; more cruelly, he delegated his clerk to research the possibilities of testosterone treatment for his son.) In any case, there is a universality here: for which of us, gay or not, hasn’t trembled on hearing our mother say, down the line from home, the dread phrase “Dad would like a word”?

After his father’s death, Mars-Jones attempts to continue to live in his parents’ home, insisting that the inn will have to evict him if it wants him gone. When it does turf him out, he writes a piece for the Times in which he denounces its members – in ­effect, his parents’ friends and neighbours. Is this just the response of a more than usually broke freelance writer? Or is it that of a man in deep grief?

Perhaps it’s both. Mars-Jones tells us quite a bit about his parlous finances but relatively little of his feelings of abandonment. He was closer to his mother. It is more than 15 years since his father died. And yet, here it is, his book. Those Knausgaardian impulses of his – perhaps they’re just displacement for his loss, word-fill for a void so unfathomably big that it still takes him by surprise, even now. 

Kid Gloves: a Voyage Round My Father is available now from Particular Books (£16.99)

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism