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 The plan was withdrawn (if it was ever real in the first place) because the cost of £30,000, to be raised by public donation, was deemed insensitive in a time of recession.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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Man in the mirror-ball: Simon Armitage's The Unaccompanied

With this mature, engaging and empathetic work, the poet softens the pain of passing years. 

The Unaccompanied, by Simon Armitage
Faber & Faber, 76pp, £14.99

“The centuries crawl past,” Simon Armitage notes in his new collection, “none of them going your way”. After a decade of acclaimed travelogues, transgressive prose poetry, and above all translation, Armitage has combed those centuries to produce innovative versions of ancient and medieval texts: Pearl, The Death of King Arthur, Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Georgics. In The Unaccompanied he returns, refreshed from his sojourn in the past and bringing the classics with him; in the book’s dystopian present, in “Poundland”, Odysseus meets the ghost of his drunken comrade Elpenor not in the Underworld, but “slumped and shrunken by the Seasonal Products display”, the poem’s pseudo-archaic English underscoring its ironic rewriting of Homer. Meanwhile, the protagonist of “Prometheus”, holed up in a post-industrial wasteland, sees his father retrieve not fire, but a Champion spark plug.

To lighten its nightmarish visions, The Unaccompanied offers the same beguiling playfulness that has characterised Armitage’s verse from his 1989 debut, Zoom!, to the “Merrie England” of Tyrannosaurus Rex versus The Corduroy Kid (2006). “Tiny”, for instance, reads like an old-school Ladybird Book (“Simon has taken his father, Peter,/to the town’s museum”) and “The Poet Hosts His Annual Office Christmas Party” makes a mischievous nod to Yeats. As ever, there are pinpoint references to popular culture; in “Gravity”, it is the “six-minute-plus/album version” of Fleetwood Mac’s “Sara” that plays on the stereo in the sixth-form common room. Yet Armitage’s concern for the socially excluded – the “skinny kid in jeans and trainers” from “The Ice Age” to whom the poet offers a spurned coat, “brother to brother” – burns unabated.

This collection articulates a new anger that is more personal, a lament for individual mortality, the sadness of time moving on too far and too fast. In “The Present”, the poet attempts to take an icicle home to his daughter:

a taste of the glacier, a sense of the world

being pinned in place by a
diamond-like cold

at each pole, but I open my hand

and there’s nothing to pass on, nothing to hold.

Armitage’s fluid poetics are pitch-perfect and his imagery remains incisive. The bare winter larch trees become “widowed princesses in moth-eaten furs”. In “Poor Old Soul” an elderly man sits, “hunched and skeletal under a pile of clothes,/a Saxon king unearthed in a ditch”. This is the measured poetry of late middle-age, in which only the promise of more loss fills the “white paper, clean pages”. In “Kitchen Window”, the poet’s mother taps the smeared glass before she falls away “behind net curtains” and then further “to deeper/darker reaches and would not surface”. “Emergency” (published in the NS in 2013) could almost be his audition for Grumpy Old Men. “What is it we do now?” he asks as he details the closed banks, and pubs where “tin-foil wraps/change hands under cover/of Loot magazine”. W G Hoskins’s gentle topological classic is referenced in “The Making of the English Landscape”, though a very different country is seen at dusk from a satellite:

like a shipwreck’s carcass raised on a
sea-crane’s hook,

nothing but keel, beams, spars, down to its bare bones.

In “Harmonium”, the poet’s father – who, in 1993’s Book of Matches, berated him for having his ear pierced – helps his son lug an unwanted organ from their local church and reminds him “that the next box I’ll shoulder through this nave/will bear the load of his own dead weight”.

Armitage’s poetic world is instantly recognisable, always inclusive. We know the faded ballrooms that turn into even sadder discos in “The Empire”. Or the clumsy children’s shoe fitter of “The Cinderella of Ferndale”, who leaves her own footprints of disappointment. As the poet stumbles on a farmers’ fancy-dress parade for a breast cancer charity in “Tractors”, the slight incident bleeds into the universal shock of diagnosis: “the musket-ball/or distant star/in your left breast”. Critics often cite Philip Larkin as an influence on his work, but Armitage’s highly tuned sense of such “mirror-ball” moments – small but refracting repeatedly across time and lives – is all his own. Thankfully, with this mature, engaging and empathetic work, he is back to record them for us, softening the pain of passing years. 

Josephine Balmer is a poet and classical translator. “Letting Go: Mourning Sonnets” will be published by Agenda Editions in July

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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