The Skeleton Tree - Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (Bad Seed Ltd) & Phantom - MJ Halloran (Off the Hip)
The reason these two sit together here is that there is a similarity.
Ever since Nick’s "Boatman’s Call" made it acceptable, musicians have been coming out of the woodwork with quiet, intense music. Some are, naturally, better than others. Some remain lost, lost without knowing why, but because they don’t share the same creative origin (or ‘muse’) which sparks Nick.
Still others are compared to Nick when they share only a few of his influences - but produce something which people think they recognise as being in Nick’s … carpark. Think Mark Steiner, Nikki Sudden, Henry Hugo, David Creese, Hugo Race, Michael Plater, … hell, think Louis Tillett, Mick Harvey even.
Yet, if you take the time to listen to these folk, you discover how completely different they are. And, more often than you’d know if you believed the critics… sometimes they’re a lot better.
Muddying the waters is Rowland S. Howard. Since his death another floodgate has opened. An entire ‘genre’ (it’s not, but that’s how people think of it) is out there now, more noticeable than ever. Not a scene, of course, but related progressions, developments across continents. Rowland reinvented his own guitar sound and style on at least three occasions, and each style seems to have been significantly influential on an international scale. Playing quietly, intensely, with verve, wit and power, was one of Rowland’s hallmarks (coincident with his filling-melting sonic holocaust), and had been since … well. Always, really.
Harry Howard’s progression in music has often been dissimilar to his brother, and Harry’s career and that of his sister Angela have recently bloomed in a most satisfying way; check out their Facebook pages and discover for yourself.
The truth is that the musicians named above well and truly produce music, lyrics, albums which, if you fancy yourself as a Nick Cave fan, you should be listening to. In fact, I’ll go further, and talk of a couple of elephants bumping round the room: after ‘The Boatman’s Call’, quite a lot of Nick’s lps have been… well, they sound good, and you get used to them quite well, but really… there’s only ever a few really good songs on them. Frankly, a few cds should have been eps. Certainly the constant soiling of critic’s trousers on every Nick Cave release is neither accurate nor justified. ‘Push the Sky Away’ was his last lp, and for me, falls with a whump into that category.
However, quite a lot of people seem to enter Nick’s charismatic envelope and leave their analytical facilities at the door. Mind you, that’s hardly uncommon, really. We pay the money, have too much to drink and it has to be a great gig because it’s ‘old so-and-so’ or That Living Legend. No wonder performers who know they’re past their performing date have so little respect for their audiences. Did someone say Bob Dylan? Gasp!
Successful performers often propel themselves into the spotlight with their craving for adulation or acceptance and love in a forum which allows them an intense experience without the personal connection. Such narcissistic performers often use drugs, of course, and have frequently collapsing relationships. The level of sophisticated narcissism at Rock Star level tends to warp into a sort of emotional manipulation of the fans. And I’m not talking about hearthrobs like Justin Bieber here, but people who’ve worked long and hard at their career, people whose longtime fans are utterly involved in the Rock Star’s own self-involvement. Bowie springs to mind, as does Reed. I’m sure you can think of more.
C’mon, Robert, it’s only music. Yeah, kind of. But it’s also real life. I remember seeing the Dinah Shore show in late 1977 (I think). I’d heard Iggy’s lps and, amazingly, Iggy was on the show. I wagged school and Mum was out. Does anyone remember Ig - our hero - telling Dinah about the worst thing he’d ever done? From memory, he took an under-age girl across a state line … and left her. Paul Trynka’s great book on Iggy mentions the show, but not the incident… It is interesting that, by 1977, Iggy hadn’t gone so far into narcissism and beyond shame and compassion because he 1) remembered the incident, and 2) remembered it, publicly, with shame. I wonder what ever happened to her?
Of course, Rock Stars are well-known for … shall we say, fibbing, in interviews. It makes the process a lot easier, makes the performer seem a lot more interesting. Though I have no reason to doubt Iggy’s story, when a Rock Star appears on TV or on radio, or in a film, talking about themselves, you must always take it with a bit of a grain of salt. Truth, to a narcissist, is an irrelevance to their Private Real Goal. Shame is something which drops by the road.
Nick has been a Rock Star for over a quarter of a century now, and that life is dissociative, an unreal, unusual lifestyle which encourages the performer to lose touch with what reality actually is; if you weren’t narcissistic before, you’d easily develop traits. For many years, Nick’s creative pattern was a ritual, a routine, touring the world singing songs which are often quiet and intense and often quite unhappy, coupled with all the adulation, attention, distorted perceptions of yourself … one wonders what effect that might have on anyone’s personality. While Nick has altered his creative pattern, for the last 25 years or more he hasn’t (and certainly doesn’t) need tour or make records for the money anymore. I think the first Grinderman lp was an attempt to break out of that shell… but I think they also realised, too late, that beyond that shell was another shell…
I won’t dwell on this too much, but for a performer who has written extensively, and sung seriously about his ‘well of misery’ and his ‘sack of woe’ (however droll that may sound) … when tragedy strikes the performer in reality, you expect a different, more direct response.
So Nick's dissociative comments in "Once More With Feeling" about his songwriting (denying the narrative in favour of the associative), and his son’s dreadful death … this strange distance seems not to do with his grief … for both Susie and Nick, it's as if they don't know how to grieve, and they're frightened of it, and won't go there, have fenced it all off … their response is so weird, and tends to argue that they are both narcissistic - a tragedy is what happens to you, not someone else. Which might explain some of the songs.
Even though "Once More…" is probably the most naked you'll see Nick, he’s still got his guard up. But I must say: the film is deeply flawed and problematic. Taken simply as a film ‘Once More…’ tries your patience (it’s a bit under two hours), and this despite a large private budget (Nick), looking beautiful, and using moving visuals, including CGI and 3-D.
"Once More…" also uses more prosaic methods from two films Nick was in, "The Road to God Knows Where", and "Wings of Desire". The first film is a big tease of a road film a rather charming shaggy dog story. The second is Wim Wenders at his best, reeking with compassion and empathy, comprehension and frustration at human mortality. Curiously, Nick’s songs in the background are the most poignant in "Wings" ("The Carny", for example), whereas the Bad Seeds' live performance is simply… well, I don’t think it needs to be in the film. I mean, at the time it was wonderful to see, but it doesn’t really add a lot to the film.
Similarly, it’s Nick’s own voice-overs in "Once More…" which are the most poignant, and one assumes he considered very carefully what he was going to say - as opposed to the apparently off-the-cuff interviews in what I assume is a limo.
However, it is in "Wings…" that we get a distinct clue as to what Nick is about, what makes him tick… the internal comment Nick makes in ‘Wings’, is ‘One more song and then it’s over. But I’m not gonna tell you about a girl, I’m not gonna tell you about a girl’, right before the opening line of ‘From Her to Eternity’: ‘I wanna tell you about a girl’. Just that one apparent contradiction from Nick is extraordinarily revealing. See, if he’s putting on a show, for an audience, which is an act of communication, and he doesn’t want to communicate… what’s he doing? Why’s he there?
During "Once More…" Nick tells the interviewer that he has no idea why he’s doing this - making the film. The statement issued on the film’s release cites his very understandable horror of answering questions about his son Arthur - yet, surely, a simple filmed interview would have done the job. You have to wonder - or at least I do - about a man who, shortly after the death of his son, rewrites an album, brings in an expensive crew to film the recording sessions, performs over and over as multiple members of a film crew move around you; imagine bright lights and a crew of four sitting on a little train with four cameras on a circular track with you as the centrepiece… I mean. Look. That’s not … you know? Would you react like this? I know I wouldn’t, couldn’t even conceive of it.
Ok, now logically, Nick would know the media would plunge into him when the next LP came out. And of course he wouldn’t want that. But… isn’t this overkill?
The goal of the film is, of course, to see Nick and Susie struggling to talk about that fenced-off area, which happens toward the end. The film was distributed internationally on the same night, with the album officially available the day after. This is a huge step forward in marketing for bands at this level, by the way - the lp is preceded by, instead of interviews with journos who get stuff wrong, but by a film which details the lp in considerable detail. It’s almost like doing a low-key tour - without the effort. I expect the Stones’ next lp will be like this. And Justin Bieber’s. Hell, it’s an industry. What do you expect? Given that a bad situation exists, however bad it is, you must turn it your advantage. Right?
There is great stuff in "Once More …", of course. Warren Ellis is revealed in all his talent: arranger as well as musician, of course. Kind of a combination of Mick Harvey and Rowland S. Howard, but… considerably less abrasive and more respectful of Nick. ‘How’s my hair?’, deadpans Nick. But he’s serious. ‘Better than ever’, jokes Warren. But he’s serious too. Warren is a fine talent, an expert at what he does.
To "Skeleton Tree", then: Nick’s lyrics are always interesting. Sometimes the lyric is better than the song; sometimes the lyric holds multiple possible meanings (and I love those). I recall what I suspect was a throwaway song, ‘Christina the Astonishing’ being delivered live. Fantastic, just amazing. Returned to the album "Henry’s Dream" with new ears. So I always pay attention to Nick’s lyrics. The first seriously duff song Nick did in his solo career was, to my mind, "Say Goodbye to the Little Girl Tree". Doesn’t really work, I’ve never thought so.
That said, the rest of "The First Born is Dead" is brilliant. And here’s the rub: while "Wanted Man" and "Black Crow King" are great narrative, character-based songs with the added flipside of being sardonic references to Nick’s own situation at the time, they’re both more powerful than "Little Girl Tree", which is I thought at the time was probably the most personal on the album.
I’m sure you know the track listing for "Skeleton Tree’"by now: "Jesus Alone", "Rings of Saturn", "Girl in Amber", "Magneto", "Anthrocene", "I Need You", "Distant Sky", "Skeleton Tree".
Musically the LP is engaging, well-recorded, intimate and, though intense, entices rather than insists. Nick’s vocal is just right, almost conversational, confessional even. That said, having looked at a few of the mainstream reviews, I think a lot of people are reading into this lp. If you’re a fan then you’ll probably love it.
"Jesus Alone" is a great opening number; squirly and filled with prescient, asymmetrical tension. It’s one of those songs you’ll remember from this LP. I like the lyrics too.
"Rings of Saturn"… well, no resonance from me at all. Rowland S. Howard once pointed out that if a writer is writing something which is oblique, it’s oblique for a reason. "Rings of Saturn" is one of those songs which murmur in the background, stylised emotion humming, but really, once you look at it in the light… no, I think I’ll sit this one out, thanks.
I’m tempted to ascribe "Girl in Amber" to lamenting a love lost in 1984 (go on, someone will call out her name from the back of the room); but it is, in typical Cave style, somewhat elliptic. Yes, alright. I know. The "song that’s spinning since 1984" is Nick’s solo career; and yes, most of the song is about his loss, and Susie’s loss. "If you want to leave, don't breathe a word/ And let the world turn" is not somewhat creepy, but Nick’s way of accepting that loss. The ending, ‘Don’t touch me’, of course, is him pushing away the grief. All that said, tho' … the song does not engage me overmuch.
Jess Denham of the British paper The Independent describes "Magneto" as ‘the album’s crippling nucleus. Shatteringly visceral images abound, from Cave catching his reflection in the bathroom mirror as he “vomits in the sink” to stars “splashed and splattered across the ceiling”..."all romanticism lost to cold, hard realism …", which doesn’t really describe the song. Also, this isn’t how I’ve experienced grief, not at all. Sure, the way we perceive things in the wake of grief is peculiar and distorted. But, the tumbling, surreal images seem to do more to conceal the topic of the song, rather than reveal it. Look at the title: a magneto is usually thought of as an alternator with magnets which we use to generate current to kickstart spark plugs in an internal combustion engine. The song is moving … and yes, it is powerful, but it’s as if the topic itself has been replaced by ellipses, so there’s no focus for the emotion expressed.
The next song is "Anthrocene" - which at first Google might be a mishear of Anthropocene; either spelling is correct: it means that period of time when we humans began to have a noticeable impact on the earth’s global systems. The term originated - as ‘anthrocene’ - in a 1992 book by Andrew Revkin; Global Warming: Understanding the Forecast. If you want something more recent, see Jan Laitos’ The Right of Non-Use (2012): she says ‘the fourth era of resource use and nonuse [is] the Anthrocene Age … because of the prominent role played by human anthropogenic decisions. Era IV … continues to the present’.
So, "Anthrocene" will get your attention. In many ways it resembles classic Bad Seeds, and in context, I’d say it’s far more the album’s heart. It’s also a great song.
I hear you been out there looking for something to love
The dark force that shifts at the edge of the tree
It's alright, it's alright
When you turn so long and lovely, it's hard to believe
That we're falling now in the name of the Anthrocene
Even though this is Nick at his most elliptic in some ways, we can instantly recognise the sentiment, circumstance, and it’s relevance to his grief. This one goes on the mixtape.
"I Need You" also goes on the mixtape. And I’ll leave you to figure that out for yourself.
"Distant Sky" … well. It’s not bad. And Else Torp takes the song into another realm, she really does. But … apart from Else, it’s not a standout. Nick’s delivery is very good, but again… I’m just not engaged here. And that’s down to the lyrics.
And much the same, I’m afraid, I must say of ‘Skeleton Tree’ itself, clearly intended as the cornerstone of the lp, where Nick accepts his loss and circumstance, ‘I called out/ That nothing is for free/ And it's alright now’. Of course, as with ‘Distant Sky’ what makes these songs survive is their delivery, the music… but really… I’m terribly sorry, but these don’t have substance. Not for me, anyway.
Throughout ‘Skeleton Tree’ there are numerous dramatic flourishes which lance at you, linked presumably to Nick’s grief … but the context is muffled, unclear, the songs indirect … of course, those expecting some sort of shared catharsis will find it, regardless. The thing with Nick is that he’s been performing so well, so precisely, for so long that … well. I now have difficulty recognising genuine engagement from him. If, in fact, that is what this is.
Overall, the lp sounds great, and will be on everyone’s turntable for months. But … apart from Jesus Alone, Anthrocene, I Need You and maybe Girl in Amber … no, it’s not the great masterwork I’ve seen it trumped as, and I’ll never put it on just to listen to it in the way I would a cd by Hugo Race, Henry Hugo, or Michael Plater or Julitha Ryan (for example). As an album, ‘Skeleton Tree’ is not very good, and it’s not the first Nick Cave album to be, simply, not very good.
When Nick says, in ‘Once More …’, that he’s sort of done away with narrative because life isn’t a narrative (missing the point that life is actually a complex series of interlocking narratives, the purpose of which escapes us) so he’s focusing more on imagery and disjointed scenes to create something emotional.
Well, that’s true, I suppose, in a way, and you know, people have responded positively to the lp. How much of that is an unwillingness to kick a man who’s down, after releasing a rather confusing lp, I couldn’t tell you. I don’t find the lyrics … convincing, I suppose is the word I’m looking for. They’re… not on-target. In fact, they half seem like the tragedy caught him as he was working on the lp, and rewrote a few lyrics into a semi-mystical arena … but surely not. I mean, that would be truly cynical.
By contrast, in 2002 Tony Cornwell (on the World Socialist Web Site) wrote a perceptive review of Scott Walker’s "Tilt"; referring to the album’s first track, “Farmer in the City (Remembering Pasolini)”, he wrote:
"The lyrics are fragmentary and presented as images on a moving pathway. You barely focus and the next lot of images close in: fragments of voices, Pasolini’s and his killers; neighbourhood cries and noise. Pasolini is seen from a distance … but the overall effect is a portrait that words alone can’t sufficiently express. Walker’s disquieting and restless tenor sobs and surges, bringing colour and movement to the scene but without offering any explanation. A high point is where Walker cries:
And I used to be a citizen
I never felt the pressure
I knew nothing of the horses
nothing of the thresher
And the string section of the London Sinfonia heaves upward in a monstrous crescendo to echo and cradle the lyric. It is a most moving and unsettling moment."
Cornwell continues: "While Walker is able create some real emotional intensity, the album does have some weaknesses. The lyrics at times become too obscure and in some places descend into gnomic utterance. That is, lines or couplets, which, while frequently sounding profound, function as separate parts and aren’t part of a united structure."
I think that’s the problem I’m experiencing here: Cornwell’s last sentence could as well refer to this LP too …
After "Once More…" had finished, the young Cave fan I went with seemed very angry. Part of this, I suspect, is the discrepancy between expectation and reality - a flaw we all share, even sociopaths. Mind you … I did notice the disclaimer at the very end the credits. "Parts of this film may not have occurred in quite this way", or somesuch. "Once More…" fails as a film because, in the end, despite the flash and skill and beauty, and apparent stifled emotion … there’s no actual story, no axle, no centre and … no bloody balance.
Now, I’m not going to spend as much time on MJ Halloran. Even though his cd merits much more space, and much more praise. I do enjoy a brilliant album, as many readers here know, but this time, rather than froth… let MJ Halloran do the talking.
If you have read this far, you should, at the very fucking least, check Halloran out. He says; “I started living in the New York about 5 years ago for the change of pace so to speak and the easier access to inspirational ideas, people, artists, collaborators, etc. Australia has its own of course, but New York is such a focal point. [For example,] I collaborated with Dee Pop (Gun Club and Bush Tetras) because we started talking outside a bar I lived above.”
But if his name doesn’t seem familiar, MJ’s story does … “Musical beginning was when I wrote my first song at 14 and have been doing so in one form or another ever since in various bands, solo and with some great players (SPJ, Brian Hooper, John Nolan, Dee Pop, Steve Boyle, Katie Dixon, Tim O’Shannassy). Up until the last seven years, I was more or less a fringe dweller in the music world. Had a band in the late 90’s that put out an EP with Mushroom. Band called Jack. Few tours, good following, spontaneously combusted.”
So, first, I tried listening to "Phantom" in the car. Big mistake. Halloran requires attention, and you’re hauled into songs, a series of small worlds, even, which are real, believable, literate and - best of all - may as well be about you or the person sitting next to you. Every song is bloody good. Every song. And the lp is a real grower, and it’ll stay with you long after you’ve forgotten Nick’s ‘Skeleton Tree’.
‘Phantom Songs’ begins with ‘Unbearable Lightness of Being’, which is one of those horrible titles of a book I will never read. Bugger the cover, the title is vile. However, clock these lyrics…
‘I got shot in the arm. With a shot of propane.
It went straight through my body… Like a runaway pulse in a beatin vein
And my mind’s eye went all purple, orange and blue
And my heart, well it wasn’t doing what it was supposed to do…’
Delivered with a rather beautiful, big voice, and with carefully controlled pauses … the effect is huge, striking and cathartic. Actually, that can be said of the entirety of ‘Phantom Songs’. And I might go read that yuckily titled book after all.
Now, while I can put a lot of records on while I do the dusting or the dishes or whatever, and sort of vague out, the best records demand more of your attention. ‘Skeleton Tree’ falls down because it doesn’t twitch your coat often enough. ‘Phantom Songs’ is, however, the real deal. Every song is different, well-set up, sung differently (the man has a good range and - critically - knows what to do with it). Intimate and instant.
I asked Halloran about his writing. ‘Experiences, people, literature, and art seem to coalesce into thoughts, tunes, ideas, riffs, that mostly appear to me when I least expect. More times than I remember, I have had to record an idea on the phone in the middle of the night or write some words on a scrap of paper with a borrowed pen while at a bar. The words when they appear can be stories, personal reflections, or statements about the world in its good and bad manifestations. My lyrics are mostly prose in the style of Dylan, Cohen, Waits or Lewis Carroll. With subtle cultural references too.’
Take "Roses Red Violets Blue":
On your way
I wish you every happiness
Don’t suffer again
The slings of wasted love ..
When no-one’s listening
Do we need a documentary in 3D to explain what the writer is on about? Christ, if we really need that… what’s the point? Even Scott Walker whose lyrics are notoriously ‘WTF?!’, (see those comments on ’Tilt’ above) but which make such a contiguous sense, are delivered with such skill and belief, that they engage us in Walker’s own odd, lush world. After ‘Tilt’, for example, a documentary would be a let-down, would destroy our imagination’s journey.
Halloran has no need of explanation or a documentary in 3D. He communicates directly, has us in his grasp right through the whole album. High marks go to Steve Boyle (violin, piano, hammond) and Tim O’Shannassey (drums) because their structures so fit Halloran’s voice and delivery perfectly. The production is by Steve Albini, and he’s kept it light, clear, bright and balanced. ‘Phantom Songs’ is a fine, fine album. It’ll speak directly to you.
I asked Halloran for more.
‘The track “there or eternity” on Phantom is about an escaping African American slave. I have many African American friends who have put me onto understanding the legacy of slavery. I read about 40 publications by African Americans (fiction and non-fiction) and that song popped out unexpectedly in one sitting.’
Let’s look at that lyric…
‘I slipped and I slid.
Down a grassy embankment.
Onto a road.
Into a ditch
It was there or eternity,
In a field of sugar cane.
With the smell of blood crystalized in the rain
This is brilliant. Elegant. Simple. Powerful. Evocative. And the entirety of ‘Phantom Songs’ is as striking, engaging, moving. Even if it doesn’t seem to be part of your immediate experience, it is.
And Nick? Well, I suspect most of you already have Nick’s new album anyway, and it’s easy enough to find. I’d never begrudge the man his fame or money - he’s worked and suffered to get where he is. Must’ve been damned hard. But as usual in the real world, the media’s attention has zeroed in on the performers and music which are not striking or amazing, ignoring those which will move you, make you react, consider, involve you in the music and lyrics, the cultures around us, your own internal landscape … but not involving you in the internal mumblings of a performer who, frankly, is not part of your world.
To the JB Hifi’s of the world, I say: see the roll-call above and get a bit of perspective.
To you, dear gentle music listener: get into MJ Halloran, and while you’re about it, check out his record label, Off the Hip.
- Nick Cave
1/2 - MJ Halloran