The tight-fitting tunes of Johnny Marr and Nick Cave

Two new albums reviewed.

Push The Sky Away (Bad Seed Ltd)
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

The Messenger (Warner)
Johnny Marr

Johnny Marr and Nick Cave share an interest in fine tailoring. One is known for his glovetight mod suits, the other for looking more and more like a Seventies porn star or superchurch preacher with his long points and medallion. Dandyism, it’s worth remembering, was never about ostentation: Beau Brummell popularised the dark coat and fulllength trouser over the stocking and kneebreech. Suits, on rock stars, are a sign of tremendous self-discipline. Marr is vegan, teetotal and a keen runner, whose only vice is a special brand of Darjeeling tea spooned from a bag he carries in his pocket. Nick Cave has been clean for ten years (he was an onand- off heroin addict for 20) and now goes out to work every day, nine-to-five, like a normal person, writing songs in an office he owns in his adoptive town of Hove.

Nowadays, Cave is as comically arch-conservative as Jeremy Clarkson. In 2008 he revealed plans to erect a giant, semi-naked golden statue of himself on horseback in his Australian hometown of Warracknabeal. The plan was withdrawn (if it was ever real in the first place) because the cost of £30,000, to be raised by public donation, was deemed insensitive in a time of recession.

He has also become a literary man-about-town. Along with his bands, Grinderman and the long-running Bad Seeds, he writes novels (such as The Death of Bunny Monroe, a nasty, long and unfocused study of the male psyche) and film scripts – which range from the excellent (2005’s The Proposition) to the soulless (last year’s Lawless, a prohibitionera gangster movie with an inordinate amount of face-punching). Cave’s “extra projects” often run on a feeling of style over substance but his music is a different story.

Push The Sky Away, the Bad Seeds’ 15th album, is a masterpiece in musical economy – a small cabinet of curiosities, which sees Cave’s broad literary sensibility reigned in by an interest in the science of songwriting. It’s gentler and less bloody than what we’re used to – he describes the songs as “ghost-babies”; there’s less of the rusty blues and more of the rich, tender folk tunes you hear in the melodies of Leonard Cohen (“Wide Lovely Eyes” unfolds like “Joan of Arc”).

A student of Cohen and Dylan, Cave has always loved hauling Biblical and mythical figures into the present day – the dazzling Dig, Lazarus Dig!!! album from 2008 asked what if Lazarus didn’t want to be raised from the dead? This time round, on “Higgs Boson Blues”, Cave hovers especially lightly over his references, like someone glancing over hundreds of Google search results: “He got the real killer groove – Robert Johnson and the Devil Man/Don’t know who is gonna rip off who.” “Water’s Edge” is a soupy meditation on young girls “dismantling themselves” for local boys, “with their legs wide to the world like Bibles open”. Track seven is called “Finishing Jubilee Street”, and it’s all about writing track four, distracted by the figure of some dark-haired girl. Like Cohen, he may still be suave at 70, in pinstripes and a grey fedora.

Marr performing in 2010 with The Cribs. Photograph: Getty Images

Johnny Marr is one of the most significant guitarists in the history of rock’n’roll yet he hardly plays solos. His innovation, the Smiths’ Rickenbacker “jangle”, as it came to be known, is in many ways an exercise in restraint, achieved through his interest in musical “textures” and the kind of connections generally lost on the casual listener. The iconic riff from “How Soon Is Now”, for instance, was inspired by Hamilton Bohannon’s 1975 “Disco Stomp”, which hardly sounds anything like it. In a sense, Marr is the closest thing in the rock’n’roll hall of fame to a session man. He describes his playing as an amalgam of the Stooges’ James Williamson, Pentangle’s Bert Jansch and Chic’s Nile Rodgers. Since the Smiths broke up in 1987, he’s nipped from project to project, fitting in stylishly – Electronic with New Order’s Bernard Sumner, the rock band the The, folkcountry with Jansch, Crowded House, indie groups Modest Mouse and the Cribs, soundtrack work for Inception. He’s so fed up of being asked whether the Smiths will reform, he recently promised to do so if the coalition government stood down in return.

The Messenger is his first solo album. Recorded in Berlin and Manchester (he’s been living in the US for years), it is awash with tremelos and new-wave energy but you’re unlikely to walk down the street singing these songs – apart from, perhaps, the moddish anthem “Upstart”, or “The Crack Up” (which could, judging by the lateral workings of his mind, have been inspired by “Le Freak”).

Rather, The Messenger sounds like one gigantic, fantastically confident backing track, where tunes reveal themselves slowly and tension exists in subtle melodic clashes. While Morrissey dipped and rose like a cobra over the music, these choruses are anthemic and percussive: very tight, very clean, very Marr. Which reminds me, he once said that he considers “thinking about clothes” to be every bit as much a creative process as thinking about musical ideas, adding that he dresses smartly not for other people but for himself. There’s something about Marr’s music that suggests – and this is so often true of the most talented instrumentalists – that he might be playing for himself as well.

Nick Cave performing in 2009. Photograph: Getty Images

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, After Chavez

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear