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 The plan was withdrawn (if it was ever real in the first place) because the cost of £30,000, to be raised by public donation, was deemed insensitive in a time of recession.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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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis