[17 December 2009]
If there is such a thing as “method composing”, Nick Cave and Warren Ellis are surely amongst practice’s most accomplished followers. Here’s a statistic: of the duo’s film scores from the last four or five years there are no less than three movies which concern characters with a preponderance of facial hair. They are, in order, 2005’s The Proposition (a film for which Cave also wrote the screenplay), 2007’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and 2009’s The Road. For those keeping track, that’s two westerns and a post-apocalyptic epic based upon the Cormac McCarthy novel. As far as the westerns go, the films generally center upon a certain kind of maverick anti-hero: typically they are male, laconic, Clint Eastwood-ish, drink barrels of whisky, shoot people, and drive women crazy. I love these kinds of movies, but let’s get to the point. While it may seem silly to suggest that this Aussie pair’s penchant for that “lived in” look carries over into the kind of films they like to score, I must say that I respectfully disagree. In fact, I would argue that the history of Cave and Ellis’s musical collaboration—going back as far as the brilliant Murder Ballads album from 1996—has been all about character immersion.
Compiling music from each of the three films mentioned above, along with entries from 2007’s The English Surgeon, 2009’s The Girls of Phnom Penh, and the duo’s (presumably “lived in”) vaults, this fall’s White Lunar offers Cave/Ellis fans a fascinating new angle on one of the most creatively fruitful musical partnerships of our new century. The collection’s 33 tracks are spread across two noir-ishly rendered compact discs. On the front cover, the two composer/performers are viewed wearing stylish sport coats, which I would call Italian. Ellis faces the camera, wearing a look as casual as his ruffled, unbuttoned, probably Italian shirt and obscured mightily by a huge “don’t call me John the Baptist, baby” beard. Cave, at his side, looks off into the distance, a lengthy mullet thing flowing to his shoulders. He wears a handlebar moustache and a look that could either mean “let’s get this photo-shoot over with quickly” or “I’m going to kill you”, or both.
Let me briefly state that the reason I take such time to detail the expressions of the two men behind the music is because I am a firm believer in the notion that art imitates life (and vice versa), rather than just a curious observer of hairstyles for the middle-aged. To expand upon my earlier thesis, I am convinced that the Cave/Ellis aesthetic is about more than just that “lived in” look or feel, but more accurately about recreating the outer world and interior spaces of the films through musical composition and arrangement.
The finest song on White Lunar’s first disc is called “The Rider”. It appears in two largely different versions and represents a true distillation of the composers’ signature sound. “The Rider #2” is a far more anxious affair than “The Rider Song”, which, alternatively, weighs in as the most conventional “pop” composition on the record. “The Rider #2” instead fades in with the unsettling strains of what might be the squeal of several looped violins. Then Cave’s voice enters the mix, in one ear as a whisper, in the other as a high, thin croon. The words he intones seem to evoke the diction of Daoist poetry: “‘When?’ said the moon to the stars in the sky. ‘Soon,’ said the wind that followed him home. ‘Who?’ said the cloud that started to cry. ‘Me,’ said the Rider as dry as a bone.” Against Ellis’ ethereal backing drone, the words take on an absolutely ominous tone. They evoke the image of a mysterious loner figure that seems to have a strangely close connection to nature while bearing at least a touch of lunacy. He is a morally ambiguous character in line with the anti-hero type I described earlier on. Then, about two minutes in, a new sample takes over where the initial one left off. This one is all nightmarish screeching over a mechanized bass rhythm. Cave’s whispering here takes on an angry urgency, hinting at times towards a full-on scream. Consequently, within the space of three minutes the listener experiences intimations of reverence, melancholy, loneliness, fear, and ultimately, violent rage. It is a mix of emotions frequently bound up in the music of the Cave/Ellis canon.
The bulk of this album, however, is comprised of instrumental music—arrangements in which strings, stuttering electronics, hushed woodwinds and lilting piano arpeggios figure prominently, engulfing the listener within their manifold layers to reveal a scarred, open landscape before the mind’s eye. The listener is subsequently transported to the plains of the American southwest or the Australian Outback. “Halo”, a three-minute violin meditation performed over a single hypnotic pulse serves as a magnificent example of Cave and Ellis’ predilection for the minimalist approach and its often mesmerizing effects. The first half of the song is presumably all Ellis, whose unmistakable saw-like tone is instantly apparent. The violinist masterfully conveys a range of emotions as he weaves an aching melodic line—at one unlikely moment threatening aggression while at the next baring vulnerability. Being that the album is mostly instrumental, it seems only natural that Ellis’ playing should come to the fore. His sonic signature is all over the place, from the humming and buzzing of textural loops to the fractured, then pristine string melodies. Cave’s presence is most obvious on those pieces that utilize the piano, although considering his highly self-conscious artistry, one presumes that he plays a major role in the compositional process.
The success of White Lunar, then, is in its sustenance of a singular atmosphere. That atmosphere bears traces of both the gothic and western genres and encompasses all of the emotional tropes and trademarks of those traditions. The performances coalesce smoothly and work together to conjure up a living landscape not unlike those presented in films such as The Proposition or The Assassination of Jesse James for which they were written. By visiting these sonically stimulated locales between headphones, the listener envisions and even steps into the shoes of its gruff, wayfaring characters. Like all great works of music, be it a film score or rock album, White Lunar entrances the active imagination. The sounds themselves are cinematic in scope, making for a rewarding listening experience and a very fine album overall.