The forthcoming film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel The Road is the third proper movie for which Nick Cave has composed an entire soundtrack (working with his fellow Bad Seed/Grinderman, Warren Ellis. (As well as The Proposition (2005) and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), Cave and Ellis have also scored two relatively obscure documentaries, The English Surgeon and The Girls of Phnom Penh , released in 2007 and 2009 respectively. A selection of their soundtrack work, White Lunar, was released on Mute in September of this year. As Pitchfork put it in their review, “it’s good to have it all in one place.”
That record (and, indeed, Cave’s excellent second novel,published earlier this year) offers yet more evidence for something the New Statesman’s film critic, Ryan Gilbey, was arguing back in March of 2006: “The diversity of this singer-songwriter-actor-novelist-poet is almost unprecedented in the music industry. Dylan’s memoirs were sparkling, Captain Beefheart can paint and Tom Waits is a wonderfully minimalist actor. But few performers spread themselves across so many media without spreading themselves thin. Cave is different.”
Cave’s work on The Road represents, I think, more than just another addition to an ever-expanding body of work: it amounts to a real breakthrough. Having seen the film last week, I can testify that for possibly the first time ever, Cave has succeeded in making his contribution to a project almost entirely anonymous. There is no unnecessarily-distracting cameo here (see the saloon singer in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford); no barely-disguised manifestation of Cave himself (see Bunny Munro in The Death of Bunny Munro); no multi-disciplinary contribution (Cave didn’t just soundtrack The Proposition, he wrote it). Just a simple, relatively sparse score, that didn’t receive a single mention in the 26 pages of production notes I was handed.
And said soundtrack is, in fact, itself relatively anonymous. Melting in and out of scenes, it is only explicitly present when accompanying monologues (lifted, I should add, directly from McCarthy’s text). And even then, it is Ellis’s violin, and not Cave’s piano, that takes centre-stage (the opposite was the case with Jesse James) — indeed, Cave’s contribution to the film is limited to an array of elegantly arranged arpeggios. As Geoffrey MacNab rather crudely put it in his Independent review of The Road, “the music . . . is likewise understated. We don’t hear Cave wailing out Murder Ballads.”
This all sounds like an extremely backhanded compliment. It’s not. In many ways, Cave’s slightly megalomaniacal approach to creativity represented the only remaining ground for criticising his work (Bad Seeds purists have been known to bemoan the absolute control Cave took of songwriting responsibilities after 1994’s Let Love In). The Road proves that the man really can do anything — even, that is, take a back-seat.
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