Archive for January, 2012

Nick Cave and Warren Ellis have provided the soundtrack to a documentary on the Memphis Three, just premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah. Source: Consequence of Sound.


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For over thirty years now there have basically been three kinds of people in this world: those who love Nick Cave with what amounts to an almost religious fervour; those who despise Nick Cave with an air of zealous superiority; and those who have never heard of Nick Cave (and/or confuse him with Nicholas Cage). Read Write [Hand]: A Multi-disciplinary Nick Cave Reader (Silkworms Ink, 2011) is very much directed to the first kind of person. Edited by Sam Kinchin-Smith, this project is a collection of thirteen illustrated essays on various aspects of Cave’s work, a number of Cave-inspired poems, and details of ten ‘mix tapes’ that, together with other audio-visual material, will be hosted on the Silkworms Ink website (http://www.silkwormsink.com) and available to purchasers. While the project is designedly aimed at a particular audience, one of its strengths is that it also helps address reasons for the traditionally divisive nature of Cave’s work. Despite its rather embarrassingly ‘Dad-joke’ title, Read Write [Hand] is, additionally, an important text, post Harry Potter VIII, in that it posits the timely question of whether Cave’s reign as the apotheosis of the alternative rock star is over.

Read Write [Hand] is an exciting publishing venture, not only because it makes thoughtful reflection on the meaning of Cave’s oeuvre available to the interested public at a tiny cost, but also because it makes use of new technology to provide a multi-media experience for the reader. Considering that Cave himself long since stormed the often artificially imposed boundaries of music to break into the realms of film, poetry, literature and art, there are few artists for whom this kind of approach could be more apposite. There is also a neat synchronicity in the fact that contributors to the volume similarly cover the spectrum of those likely to be professionally interested in Cave: academics, bloggers, journalists, musicians, students, teachers, visual artists and writers.

The essays in this collection cover topics ranging from analysis of Cave’s interest in the divine (Kevin E.G. Perry, Peter Webb), the cinematic quality of many of Cave’s lyrics (Cypress Grove) and the inter-textuality of much of his work (Nick Groom, Nicolas Pillai, Ashlee Elfman), through a close reading of a ‘Green Eyes’ as poetry (Phil Brown) and the recurring trope of ‘Loverman’ (Morgan Wolfe), to various challenges issued to Cave by those concerned about a change of direction in his work (Spring Offensive, Sam Kinchin-Smith). The more analytical contributions succeed, on the whole, in offering insights into Cave’s body of work from the unique perspectives of their authors’ professional outlooks. These pieces deepen the understanding that, while it is often easy for detractors to criticise Cave for ‘not being original’, few other artists dead or alive have been able to so seemlessly meld so many inspirational sources into the one kinesthetic experience. Indeed, perhaps writing as children of this experience, Spring Offensive and Kinchin-Smith express the anxiety that this socially critical yet culturally informed function of Cave has passed. In a collective epistle to Cave, Spring Offensive urge him to re-find an order in his world because ‘if you are adrift then we too are lost’. Taking the polar opposite yet oddly complimentary approach, Kinchin-Smith discerns an increasingly ‘grounded’ quality in Cave’s writing as time has gone by: a more and more persistent attachment to ‘Englishness’ and a sense of being ‘in place’ that found its articulation in the use of ‘O Children’ in the latest Harry Potter film. Both writers worry about what will happen to their own sense of identity if ‘Cave-ness’ becomes a commodity like any other.

It is, however, the two close readings, ‘But a Matter of Faith: Cave’s Lyrical Accomplishment and Poetic Scrutiny’ by Phil Brown and ‘”There’s a Devil Crawling Along Your Floor”: Love + Lust = Madness in Cave’s videos’ by Morgan Wolfe, which really shine in this anthology. Brown, a teacher and poet, tackles the perennial question is whether it is just or fruitful to treat lyrics as poetry–a question especially pertinent in contemporary contexts in which collections of lyrics not only sell well but are part of the secondary school curriculum. Although he comes down on the ‘unjust’ side of the debate, Brown offers a scintillating discussion of the shifting narrative voice and interpretive possibilities of Cave’s ‘Green Eyes’ lyric, which he convincingly argues is the lyric most suited to such a poetic analysis. Wolfe, a blogger with long-standing interest in both Cave and his past collaborator, Blixa Bargeld, contributes a fascinating survey of the appearances of a character she denotes the ‘Loverman’ in Cave’s work. Focusing on the depiction of this character in the official music videos, Wolfe identifies an uncanny maturation of the Loverman motif, almost unerringly assisted or provoked by the presence of Bargeld. Regardless of whether the reader completely agrees with this psycho-mythic reading, the detailed scrutiny of mise en scène here is impressive and wonderfully thought-provoking.

In his introduction to the volume, Kinchin-Smith delineates a space for his text ‘halfway between Karen Welberry and Tanya Dalziell’s Cultural seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave (Ashgate, 2009)…and the sort of Spotify-powered musical commentary that Drowned in Sound does so well’. What this means in reality is that Read Write [Hand] is not an academic volume: the essays vary significantly in length and intellectual rigor; few contributors have referenced their sources; and, at times, there is a distinct lack of acknowledgement of previous work in the field. One interesting contribution, for example, comprises a comprehensive ‘bestiary’ of allusions Cave has made to animals in his songs. The author concludes by apologising for not ‘doing more’ but it was ‘taking [him] ages’. It hardly needs pointing out that such a catalogue would be the starting point, rather than end product, of an academic analysis. It is also rather discomforting to see an essay on the seeds of present Cave obsessions and lyrics that doesn’t acknowledge Clinton Walker’s documentation of the Boys Next Door era–and another which repeats Cave’s own erroneous claim that his father died when he ‘was 19’. As I know to my own chagrin, an academic text does take an enormous amount of time to commission and edit to ensure against such omissions and errors. Unfortunately, in the current marketplace, it often results in a small expensive print run if a publisher can even be found.

Spotify, on the other hand (not currently available in Australia), is a free means of sharing playlists of music with other users; when linked to written commentary about the choices on a blog or website, it facilitates often insightful (but sometimes quite personal, ill-informed or plain random) discussion and enjoyment of musical links, influences and contrasts. Read Write [Hand] neatly avoids some of the time, expense and expertise necessary to produce an academic volume while significantly upping the ante on Spotify in terms of the credentials of its authors. Somewhat ironically, given its pitch on ‘affordability’, Kinchin-Smith’s text will presumably work best for readers interested in both the written and multimedia content on an (expensive) iPad or similar large-screen portable device. Readers without this technology or inclination may find the format frustrating (if they are interested in the essays), or the essays redundant (if they are interested in the mix tapes). Either way, the text is no doubt in the advance party for much publishing on music to come.

Karen Welberry

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Spell reverie

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