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 The plan was withdrawn (if it was ever real in the first place) because the cost of £30,000, to be raised by public donation, was deemed insensitive in a time of recession.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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Track changes: a history of the railways

Simon Bradley's new book takes us from the train carriage to station signposts, walking the line between nostalgic reminiscence and hard evidence.

In his classic travel book The Great Railway Bazaar, Paul Theroux wrote that “the trains in any country contain the essential paraphernalia of the culture”. Of nowhere is this truer than the first railway nation. So much of Britain is what Simon Bradley calls “railway-haunted territory” – its landscape either directly transformed by the bridges, tunnels, cuttings and marshalling yards or indirectly touched by the social revolution wrought by the train. The train compartment is a micro-society that has brought the classes together to gawp at and dissect each other. “I can watch a dirty middle-aged tradesman in a railway-carriage for hours,” wrote Rupert Brooke in 1910, “and love every dirty greasy sulky wrinkle in his weak chin and every button on his spotted unclean waistcoat.” From the romance of steam to the curled corners of the British Rail sandwich, the railways have stirred the national imagination. So a single-volume social history of the scale and ambition of Bradley’s feels overdue.

The book is arranged spatially rather than chronologically. It begins in the railway carriage, the “mobile enclosure in which millions of people enjoyed or endured billions of hours”, and then takes us along the permanent way and its hinterland, ending on the platforms and concourses of the great railway stations. The non-linearity makes for some slightly awkward transitions (“so now we must move out of the compartment for a time . . .”), but it does allow Bradley to show how, on the railways, the present is always colliding with the past. Victorian carriages, divided into single compartments, survived on electrified commuter lines into the 1960s; W H Auden’s Night Mail was still “crossing the border” into the 1980s; the slam-door carriages and wide-window vistas of the InterCity 125 add a 1970s retro-chic to the present fleet.

Bradley was a schoolboy trainspotter, and he retains something of the spotter’s meticulousness and completism (or perhaps he has acquired this as a joint editor of the Pevsner Architectural Guides). For arcane knowledge, alight here: we learn about the varieties of upholstered leather used to cover seats, the different types of lavatory (early prototypes exposed the user to a
hurricane-force draught from below), the many iterations of platform tickets and the minutiae of buffet-car menus. “A straw in the wind,” he writes drily of the slow decline of the Pullman trains, “was the abandonment of croutons with the soup course.”

While Bradley does not always succeed in separating the telling details from the mere details, his book is still generously stuffed with the former. He tells us how the steam that hisses so evocatively from the halted train in Edward Thomas’s poem “Adlestrop” was produced; how the diddly-dum, fourfold beat of a moving train comes from the way 20th-century track was welded together, unlike today’s continuously welded rails, which have done away with this lovely music for ever; and how the graffitied railway carriage of the 1970s owed less to a broken society than it did to the new technologies of aerosol paint and the marker pen.

Bradley’s book picks up full steam whenever he evokes the sensual experience of travelling by train in the days before it became like being on an airliner: “the sour smell of wet cigarette ash” on a rainy winter’s day, “the tobacco-tainted condensation on single-glazed carriage windows” and the “mysterious creaks, squeaks and groans” of the sleeper train, with its promise of magical translation, separated by unconsciousness, to another place.

It is harder to gauge Bradley’s politics: he does not have the crusading interest in political economy of that other great railway writer, Christian Wolmar. Skating over privatisation in a few pages, he passes up the chance to explore the railways as a case study in the tussle between free-market economics and subsidised, fixed-capital industry. Yet even as a boy he “sensed the integrity and purpose of the railway”, and he seems kindly disposed to the last days of British Rail and resistant to the mythology of national decline with which they became indelibly linked. He retains a particular affection for the high-speed trains of the ­pre-Thatcherite era, their aesthetic appeal and technical excellence forged out of an ideal marriage of state intervention and commercial nous.

Like most of us, Bradley is not enamoured of the Virgin Pendolino, with its parsimonious window-to-wall ratio and its failure to accommodate the inexorable rise of the rigid-wheeled suitcase. And he wryly notes the monetising of the everyday which leaves even the space on station signs up for sale. Clapham Junction is now “Home of James Pendleton Estate Agents, a passion for excellence” and Cambridge “Home of Anglia Ruskin University” – although I’ve always assumed that this is not “unintentionally comic”, as he says, but a rather clever joke.

But Bradley is too even-tempered to give way to bloviating about the good old days. He walks a nice line between nostalgic reminiscence and hard evidence. He is sanguine, for instance, about the conversion of stations from messy and multifunctional social spaces, with clattering trolleys, porters and waiting rooms, into a generic retail opportunity. As he points out, the railways were always a commercial proposition and never set out to be romantic or atmospheric – and besides, “cappuccino and croissants smell better than diesel fumes”.

The Railways: Nation, Network and People by Simon Bradley is published by Profile Books (645pp, £25)

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war