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 The plan was withdrawn (if it was ever real in the first place) because the cost of £30,000, to be raised by public donation, was deemed insensitive in a time of recession.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

FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images
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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

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