[Mixtape]: I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive


“Now the dark air is like fire on my skin, and even the moonlight is blinding.”

As far as country and americana goes, I’ve always preferred songs from the darker side of the road. Songs that carry with them some of the ancient sinisterness rippling below the surface of the American South’s expansive landscapes or the isolation of its satellite settlements.

This mix was part inspired after reading my way through Southern Gothic writer Flannery O’Connor’s short stories for an article I wrote commemorating her death fifty years on. Despite an early death, O’Connor’s output was formidable and her vivid, sardonic stories brought to life the conflicted and shifting American South of the mid-twentieth century. In a lecture on the grotesque she said, “I think it’s quite safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ haunted”. It’s this feeling of spiritual malaise that permeated the straggled communities and primeval swamplands of Louisiana in Nic Pizzollato’s HBO series True Detective, the other inspiration for this mix, and which I tried to recreate here.

So if, like me, you like your americana with a tinge of gothic desolation, this is for you. Plug in and enjoy.

Tracklist:
1. ‘Drover’ – Bill Callahan – Apocalypse
2. ‘To Bring You My Love’ – PJ Harvey – To Bring You My Love
3. ‘Meet Me In The Alleyway’ – Steve Earle – I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive
4. ‘Redemption Day’ – Johnny Cash – American VI: Ain’t No Grave
5. ‘Rake [Live]’ – Townes Van Zandt – A Gentle Evening With Townes Van Zandt
6. ‘The Way It Will Be’ – Gillian Welch – The Harrow And The Harvest
7. ‘Youngstown’ – Bruce Springsteen – The Ghost Of Tom Joad
8. ‘The Singer’ – Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Kicking Against The Pricks
9. ‘Cold Irons Bound’ – Bob Dylan – Time Out Of Mind
10. ‘Algiers’ – The Afghan Whigs – Do To The Beast
11. ‘Fallen Peaches’ – The Handsome Family – Singing Bones
12. ‘Wings’ – Josh Ritter – Hello Starling
13. ‘Satellite’ – Hope Sandoval & The Warm Inventions – Through The Devil Softly
14. ‘Everything’s Fucked’ – Dirty Three – Dirty Three

Let me know what you thought of this mixtape, or post any mixes of your own, in the comments below. I’d love to hear them.

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[Sound and Vision]: 20,000 Days On Earth

20000days “I feel I can control the weather with my moods, I just can’t control my moods is all.”

A life in the day.

As Nick Cave rises early from his bed and opens the shutters on a stormy day towards the beginning of 20,000 Days On Earth, he outlines his daily routine in a conspiratorial interior monologue: “I wake, I write, I eat, I watch TV”. This in itself is a fair synopsis of the film, which charts a fictitious day in the life of Cave as he drives around his chosen hometown of Brighton attending a therapy session, visiting his personal archives and dining with Bad Seed and right-hand man Warren Ellis (whose backwoods svengali appearance is an amusing contrast to Cave’s bank-clerk-cum-preacher manner) before returning home. However, as with much of Cave’s work, much more is conveyed during Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard’s captivating portrait of the mercurial musician than a simple synopsis suggests.

Lying somewhere between straight documentary and psychological drama, 20,000 Days is a mix of orchestrated events and spontaneous conversations, as Cave is placed in situations and conversations that allow him to eloquently muses on his memories, his fears and his creative process. Interspersed throughout are songwriting and recording sessions in Saint-Rémy de Provence for last year’s Bad Seeds record Push The Sky Away (The Grapevine’s Best Album of 2013), offering rare insights into the putative formation of these songs (including a gentle piano ballad which loses its mojo once Ellis notes its similarity to a Lionel Richie song). Elsewhere an enrapturing live performance showcases The Bad Seeds in full messianic flight, Cave seemingly transformed into a lightning rod of a man as a young audience hang enthralled upon his every word.

As Cave drives between encounters he has conversations with friends Ray Winstone, Blixa Bargeld (one of Cave’s primary creative foils over the years, along with Ellis and Mick Harvey) and Kylie Minogue, Cave’s duet partner on The Bad Seeds’s biggest hit, ‘Where The Wild Roses Grow’. They appear unannounced in his car as if figments of his imagination or ghosts, as the film blurs the lines between past and present, fact and fiction. These shifting spaces and temporalities serve not only to relate Cave’s history with an engaging immediacy, but also allow Forsyth and Pollard to focus in on recurring themes of mortality, creativity and spirituality which seem to preoccupy Cave.

Equally as captivating as Cave’s magnetic onscreen personality is the spellbinding cinematography. Shots veer between eye-watering lucidity, vividly capturing subtle gestures and flecks of spray chucked up by a grey sea, and a ponderous, hazy gaze as street lights smear on Cave’s windshield. Simply put, the film is bewitchingly beautiful, and creates the sense that time itself is stretching and warping as the past impinges on the present.

Over the course of 20,000 Days Cave seemingly reveals a lot behind his imposingly slim figure: he explains his songwriting process (“It’s all about counterpoint”) and conveys his fears of not reaching a creative place he is satisfied with; a session with psychoanalyst Darian Leader focuses on his formative experiences with music, girls and the metamorphosing effect of his father reading and explaining the opening chapter of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita to him; while scouring through the artefacts of his personal archives and talking to old cohorts allows Cave to reminisce on his career and relate anecdotes about Tracey Pew intercepting a pissing stage crasher at a Birthday Party gig, meeting his wife in an art gallery, and introducing a belligerent and terrifying Dr. Nina Simone at the Meltdown Festival he curated in 1999.

Forsyth and Pollard have not merely a created a documentary, but have crafted the most engaging and dynamic way of perceptively exploring what Nick Cave does and how the creative endeavours of mankind in general attempt to tap into something transcendent and beyond ourselves. But for an enigmatic artist whose work distorts the boundaries between the real and supernatural and who has long manipulated his own mythic persona, the question you’re left wondering as the camera floats away from Cave, standing solitary on a twilit Brighton beach, is whether you’ve actually seen behind the curtains, or if you have been speaking to the Wizard of Oz all along?

20,000 Days On Earth is in cinemas now.

[Cover Me]: Richard Thompson, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds and Tim Buckley

There are good covers, and there are bad covers. These are some I think belong in the former category.

Richard Thompson – ‘Oops!… I Did It Again’ (Originally by Britney Spears)
That right there was the sound of you double-taking. As part of his ambitious 2003 project 1,000 Years of Popular Music, which traced a common thread through music from 1068 all the way up to 2001, folk-rock luminary Richard Thompson closed with this Britney Spears mega-hit (though not without taking a slight detour to the 16th century towards the end). It’s clever, tongue-in-cheek and damn if it isn’t catchy!

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – ‘Tower of Song’ (Originally by Leonard Cohen)
It was a toss up between posting this and The Bad Seeds’ haunting cover of Johnny Cash’s ‘The Singer‘ from Kicking Against The Pricks, but for sheer full-tilt energy and originality I had to plump for this. Leonard Cohen has been Nick Cave’s mentor in many ways (the first Bad Seeds album even opens with a cover of Cohen’s ‘Avalanche‘), so it is not surprising for Cave to pay tribute to the man “gifted with a golden voice”. Rather than sticking to the blueprint though The Bad Seeds rip it up with a frantic race through almost every conceivable genre of the 20th century. The result is as if you were plummeting between the floors of the eponymous Tower of Song and hearing the noises made on different floors on the way down.

Tim Buckley – ‘Martha’ (Originally by Tom Waits)
This track is taken from Tim Buckley’s penultimate album Sefronia, and while much of the album is a mixed bag there is no doubting the grandness of his version of one of Tom Waits’s earliest heartbreakers. In fact, Waits’s Closing Time (the album the original appeared on) had only surfaced two months before Sefronia was released, and this says something for the immediate connection Buckley must have felt with ‘Martha’ to record it and really get where Waits was coming from. While musically Waits’s original is soused in the dissatisfactions of the present, Buckley’s sweet, string laden version brims with the optimism of a young love which the song’s Tom Frost hopes to rekindle with Martha. By being the first prominent artist to cover songs by the then largely unknown Waits, Buckley drew public attention to him and thereby helped him on his way to becoming one of the truly defining artists of the last fifty years. For that alone, this version of ‘Martha’ deserves attention and appreciation.

[It Was A Very Good Year]: The Best Of 2013

Well, 2013 is officially over, which means its time to cast an eye back over the year’s finest moments. There were so many albums I loved last year that they would easily fill up a top twenty, and even then there would be pushing and shoving. However, there can only be ten (for arbitrary reasons) and so with that in mind I have chosen the albums which impressed me most and continue to impress me long after luring me back for repeated listens. So, without further ado…

The Best Albums

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10. Kwes – ilp
On his hypnotising debut Kwes blends pop, ambient and electronic influences into a gluey fog of emotion that clings to you, giving it the deeply immersive quality of Portishead’s Dummy. While the understated melodies and blurred beats don’t immediately grab attention, it is the quiet confidence and kaleidoscopic nature of the music which is ilp’s strength. It will be interesting to see where he goes next.

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9. Julia Holter – Loud City Song
Not usually my thing, but there was something very compelling and mesmerising about Loud City Song which called me back for repeated listens and made me dig deeper each time. Each layer of Julia Holter’s avant-garde pop intrigues with moments of tension and release, forming dense collages of sound. Meanwhile, her flexible voice adopts different guises and moves eerily between seeming faint in the distance or uncomfortably close, as if you were listening to a radio which could tune into different rooms of a city.

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8. Charles Bradley – Victim of Love
After the overwhelming success of No Time For Dreaming, Charles Bradley’s debut at sixty-two, Victim of Love sees Bradley spreading his wings and finding his own (loud) voice. Aided by the capable Menahan Street Band, Bradley moves effortlessly between Temptations style psych-funk on ‘Confusion’ and ‘Love Bug Blues’, and slow-burning soul ballads on ‘Give Love A Chance’ and earnest album closer ‘Through The Storm’. It is an album brimming with gratitude and he gives as good as he gets (better, I’d argue).

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7. Jim James – Regions Of Sound And Light Of God
Jim James’s first out-and-out solo LP came up trumps, inspired by Lynd Ward’s Good Man and exploring themes of living life in an age cluttered by technology. Away from My Morning Jacket’s expanded alt. country, James blends genres to great effect from new-age rock ’n’ roll to electro-gospel. As ever though, at the centre of this extended sonic horizon is his cavernous voice, which sounds more than ever like a man sending messages into outer space.

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6. Eels – Wonderful, Glorious
No other album I heard this year was quite so aptly labeled, or half as fun. Wonderful, Glorious is the sound of E revelling in finally being in a band that can keep up with him, dishing up outrageous, scuzzy rock and gentle, mellow pop in the process. A golden slice of life affirming rock and roll!

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5. Josh Ritter – The Beast In Its Tracks
An album of dark nights and new mornings, The Beast In Its Tracks is the result of Josh Ritter retreating into songwriting to exorcise his demons from divorce, alcohol and insomnia. While much of the album sees Ritter happy in the arms of a new lover, songs like ‘Evil Eye’ and ‘Nightmares’ bounce along on cheerful melodies which disguise harrowing lyrics documenting his night terrors. Between bitterness and newfound happiness, Ritter evokes a long road to recovery experienced by many and perfectly captures the turning point onJoy To You Baby’. Ritter’s Blood On The Tracks? Possibly…

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4. Pearl Jam – Lightning Bolt
Twenty-three years and ten albums in, Pearl Jam could be forgiven for showing signs of age. But, on Lightning Bolt they prove themselves to be as lean and hungry as ever, equally comfortable delivering full-throttle punk (‘Mind Your Manners’, ‘Lightning Bolt’) and gentle ballads (‘Yellow Moon’, ‘Sleeping By Myself’). The only signs of age are a mature perspective on love and mortality, with ‘Sirens’ seeing Eddie Vedder “overwhelmed by the grace with which we live our lives with death over our shoulders”. Lightning Bolt shows Pearl Jam ageing gracefully; still angry and still at the top of their game.

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3. Poliça – Shulamith
Hot on the heels of their critically acclaimed debut, Poliça build on its momentum with their difficult second album. The basic elements of echoing vocals, glacial synthesisers and effervescent percussion are still present, but Shulamith is more confrontational than its predecessor (much like its namesake, Shulamith Firestone). The music is less introverted; the synths are brutalising and the pulsing beats are feverish. Meanwhile, Channy Leanaegh’s vocals and lyrics, concerned with conflicts of identity in relationships, are direct and forthright. Rather than courting mainstream success, you get the sense that Shulamith is the sound of Poliça staying true to their beliefs.

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2. Anna Calvi – One Breath
Grander in scale, but more vulnerable than it’s predecessor. Anna Calvi still has a flair for the dramatic, but she seems to let down her guard more on One Breath, not letting the façade get in the way of expressing mortal frailty on the title track or brutal honesty on ‘Love Of My Life’. Calvi’s symphonic ambitions still remain intact on ‘The Bridge’ and ‘Sing To Me’ though, and that astounding voice continues to grip the imagination, even when it is but a barely audible whisper.

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1. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Push The Sky Away
With the departure of guitarist Mick Harvey in 2009, Nick Cave’s right-hand man for nearly thirty years, the sound of the next Bad Seeds record seemed uncertain. As a result, the Bad Seeds embrace disarmingly minimal and intimate soundscapes on Push The Sky Away, focusing on textural instrumentation and contemplative lyrics delivered with conviction by Cave. The album looks both backwards and forwards on the band’s legacy, with the cataclysmic ‘Higgs Boson Blues’ seeming an answer to their ‘Abattoir Blues’ prophesied nine years earlier, while the spiritual communion of ‘We No Who U R’ and personal mantra ‘Push The Sky Away’ gesture to the artistic boundaries which they continue to push and transcend.

The Best EP

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Sampha – Dual
A genre defying EP; part electronic and hip-hop, part soul and singer-songwriter. While Morden based musician/producer, Sampha Sisay, has been lending his skills to high-profile artists such as Jessie Ware, SBTRKT and Drake, here on his second solo EP he shows that he kept the best ideas for himself. The songs themselves, based around Sampha’s soulful vocals and commanding piano melodies, are accomplished and would make enjoyable listening by itself. However, the extra layers he constructs on these solid basics indicate a measured artistry and that Sampha has a clear direction in mind. Brief interludes such as ‘Demons’ and ‘Hesitant Oath’ brim with creative enthusiasm and give the EP a cohesiveness which is missing from many full-length releases, while the intricate composition of clipped samples that weave in and out of the ‘live’ instrumentation keeps Dual unpredictable and imbues it with a compelling sense of depth. And yet for all its intricacy Dual still manages to sound pared down to its lean essentials, with no flab or unnecessaries attached. Evocative and simply captivating.

The Best Single

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David Bowie – ‘Where Are We Now?’
Released silently on Bowie’s birthday in January, ‘Where Are We Now?’ announced the Dame’s return to recording as the leading single to The Next Day. In many ways indicative of the album’s musical introspectiveness, evoking and pastiching the diverse phases of Bowie’s career, ‘Where Are We Now?’ is the quintessential post-Bowie Bowie song. While only four minutes long, the song’s sweeping scale and slow-burning energy feels like a lifetime condensed into a single moment, as Bowie casts a forlorn backward glance at his Berlin days. Over twenty years after the fall of the Berlin wall things have changed yet remain the same, as old names and places spark memories and are filled with hurrying people crossing their fingers as they traverse busy intersections “just in case”. In the midst of the commotion which leads us nowhere, a childlike Bowie finds some solace and resolve to carry on in a few fundamentals: “As long as there’s sun, as long as there’s rain, as long as there’s fire, as long as there’s me, as long as there’s you”.

The Biggest Surprise

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Apart from Beyoncé dropping a killer pop album unannounced, Miley Cyrus’s twerktastic antics sparking mass debate on female autonomy in the music business and the early release of Pussy Riot members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, probably the single piece of news that caused widespread shock and disarray across the music world was the sudden death of Lou Reed on 27th October. Lou died of liver disease at the age of 71, having undergone a liver transplant earlier in the year, and I guess the reason his death came as such a shock was that his body had been through so much abuse that people expected him to be one of the few things to survive a nuclear armageddon, along with the cockroaches and Keith Richards. Black humour aside, the effect Lou’s songs had on music and peoples’ lives is immeasurable and his sudden death took many off-guard as they realised there would never be another like him. So rest in peace, Lou, this satellite has gone way up to Mars.

What were your best music moments of 2013? Let me know in the comments below.

— Elements of The Best Albums appear in extracted form over at Hercules Moments.

[From The Cutting Room Floor]: Jeff Buckley, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Pearl Jam.

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Often, seeking out new music can feel like a treasure hunt (or sweeping a minefield, depending on how you look at it). And while the internet has made this search far easier it is still the case that sometimes X marks the spot exactly, and sometimes it just doesn’t. But, every now and then you will come across those completely unexpected diamonds-in-the-rough that appear in the form of B-sides, outtakes or bootlegged live cuts. Those happy moments where you stumble across something that stops you in your tracks and think ‘Why is this only a B-side?’. Of course B-Sides once used to serve the purpose of being where artists could experiment on a format which would not effect popularity (as A-side singles do) or stick out like a sore thumb in an album’s track list. But, these happy accidents still have the power to add immense value and enrich your life. This feature is about digging out those deeper cuts that deserve more attention than mere relegation.

‘All Flowers In Time Bend Towards The Sun’ – Jeff Buckley

Presided over by his mother, Mary Guibert, Jeff Buckley’s legacy has been kept in safe hands since his death nearly twenty years ago, and the steady stream of bonus material that has surfaced since then has only served to cement his status as an effulgent talent. From the rough, but sophisticated eclecticism of incomplete sophomore album Sketches For My Sweetheart The Drunk, to golden throwaway moments on the expanded edition of Grace and stunning recordings of his café days on Live at Siné, all of these recordings prove that Buckley exuded the kind of creative gold dust that plenty of musicians would trade their own mother for. Here is a deep, deep cut that points to a possible collaboration with Elizabeth Fraser of Cocteau Twins that may possibly have gone down in history. Buckley is a perfect foil for Fraser’s quavering siren call, duelling perfectly with his own shimmering and elastic croon. The music strikes a nice middle-ground between Buckley’s innovative musicality and the dream-pop sojourns of Cocteau Twins, providing a mutual space for these captivating vocalists to meet.

‘Come Into My Sleep’ – Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds 

To be found on the mammoth, if literally titled, three disc B-Sides & Rarities collection, ‘Come Into My Sleep’ originally appeared as the B-side to ‘(Are You) The One I’ve Been Waiting For?’. I can certainly see why this track wouldn’t fit on the introspective tone of The Boatman’s Call, but it certainly offers a seductive remedy to its caustic A-side. It is a metaphysical serenade of sorts, with Cave petitioning his lover to sail through seas of stars into his dreams. A simple xylophone melody invokes intrigue while Cave’s vocals glide over them amongst dreamy strings. Stunning.

‘Drifting’ – Pearl Jam

This song was allegedly written on the back of a plane ticket after Eddie Vedder spent a night over at Neil Young’s house, and the vagabond spirit which has permeated both musicians’ work is certainly at the fore here. Unlike some of the sprawling, anthemic songs Pearl Jam have made, ‘Drifting’ centres on Vedder’s searching, soulful vocals and laid back acoustic strumming as he extols the virtues of untangling yourself from the complicating excesses of a materialistic lifestyle and hits with the force of a simple truth. It’s a lovely, carefree ditty which offers a precursor to his later soundtrack for Sean Penn’s film Into The Wild.

What are your favourite B-sides and rarities? Let me know in the comments below.

[On The Record]: Confessional Records.

As the mornings get colder and the nights draw in close, I always find myself listening to albums of a more personal nature. Maybe I’m a bit voyeuristic, but I do love a good confessional or break-up record full of excoriating truths and heart wrenching tales. Somewhere in between the longing and anger though, there is a cathartic comfort to be found. Against the closing in of autumn and winter such albums can feel like small intense fires, which warm you through to your bones. So, I thought I’d give a rundown of some of my in-the-wee-small-hours-of-the-morning favourites…

Bob Dylan – Blood On The Tracks

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“Sundown, yellow moon, I replay the past, / I know every scene by heart, they all went by so fast.”

With any artist there’s always the tricky matter of how much to take as autobiographical and how much is artistic license. This is especially the case with Bob Dylan, an artist who has delighted in misleading and provoking listeners and critics alike. However, Blood on the Tracks, written around the time of his separation from then-wife, Sara, is probably the closest we will ever get to Dylan’s personal experiences and observations on relationships. It is a dizzying collection of scenes, some depicting longing and bitterness (‘You’re A Big Girl Now’), others articulating contentment and fond memories (‘Shelter From The Storm’). As ever though, Dylan playfully leaves questions unanswered in even his most detailed accounts and sometimes he merely treats us to a glimpse of a girl who “might be in Tangiers”, leaving the listener to draw their own conclusions. Even if these stories are not true of him, these perceptive songs are certainly true of somebody at some time or another and rank among Dylan’s finest work.

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – The Boatman’s Call

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“We will know, won’t we? The stars will explode in the sky, / But they don’t, do they? Stars have their moment then they die.”

After the chilling and blackly-comic Murder Ballads, The Boatman’s Call was something of a complete U-turn for The Bad Seeds. Where the former is lascivious and merciless, the latter is sombre and restrained, displaying monk-like calm throughout the grief and intense self-scrutiny. Sparked by Nick Cave’s break up with PJ Harvey, he would later denounce it saying “I’d got dumped by some bird and here I was making this grand statement – about some fucking sheila!”’ Despite Cave’s retrospective criticisms of the album, it remains one of the Bad Seeds’s best records and features some of Cave’s most beautifully written lyrics. The album moves from optimism on spiritual-devotional love songs ‘Into My Arms’ and ‘Lime Tree Arbour’ through to misanthropy and self-loathing on ‘People Ain’t No Good’ and bleak album-closer ‘Green Eyes’. Against the backdrop of meditative melodies from the Bad Seeds, it is Cave’s commanding voice which really drives the album home, striking through to the core as if he were delivering a sermon from a pulpit.

Eels – Electro-Shock Blues

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“Life is funny, but not haha funny, / Peculiar, I guess.”

 From an album whose near opening lines are “My name’s Elizabeth, my life is piss and shit”, you’d expect Electro-Shock Blues to be one long doom and gloom fest. Given the details of Mark Oliver Everett a.k.a. E’s life, you’d forgive him for it (see the album’s story in comics here). But as ever, E finds comfort in creating esoteric, feel-good music with a serious side. It’s a journey you share with E all the way to its stoic conclusion on ‘P.S You Rock My World’ (“I was at a funeral the day I realised I wanted to spend my life with you […] And I was thinking about how everyone is dying, And maybe it’s time to live”). Graceful and indomitable, the album is a lesson in carrying on. Just as good is his recent three album cycle Hombre Lobo, End Times, Tomorrow Morning which follow relationships from infatuation to disintegration to recuperation.

Joni Mitchell – Blue

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“The bed’s too big, / The frying pan’s too wide.”

The biggy in the confessional album world, Blue really is the archetypal confessional album. As Joni Mitchell broke up with longtime partner, Graham Nash, and an increasing post-60’s hangover began to set in for the summer-of-love generation, she moved away from her flower-child image and further explored the personal side of her songwriting. What resulted on Blue was Mitchell letting all her barriers down and giving herself over completely to unmitigated emotional expression, revisiting experiences of infatuation, insecurity, estrangement and giving a child up for adoption. The diverse emotional ground she covers is vast, conveying both painful and joyful experiences in all their emotional intensity. Probably Mitchell’s greatest achievement with this album though is that she really manages to communicate the emotions present in each song, and not just their sentiments.

The Horrible Crowes – Elsie

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“I heard a curse being born, / Forming each finger and forming each thorn.”

Set up by Brian Fallon and his guitar tech Ian Perkins as a more unplugged and intimate outfit than The Gaslight Anthem, The Horrible Crowes’s Elsie shot into the top five of my best of 2011 list and it has been played many times since then. Dealing with themes of loneliness and heartbreak, it seems no coincidence that The Gaslight Anthem’s following album, Handwritten, tackled more difficult personal issues than their previous output. On Elsie, Fallon strikes a fine balance between hushed and intimate moments like ‘Sugar’ and raucous belters full of rage like ‘Mary Ann’.  And while there are plenty of tear-jerkers (’Cherry Blossoms’ is particularly gut-wrenching), Fallon ultimately ends on an optimistic note with ‘I Believe Jesus Brought Us Together’. Raw, poignant and sublimely crafted, Elsie marks out Brian Fallon as a major songwriting talent in America today.

Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago

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“For every life… forgo the parable”

Suffering from glandular fever and break-ups with his former band DeYarmond Edison and a relationship, Justin Vernon retreated to a hunting cabin in Northwestern Wisconsin over the winter of 2006 in order to lick his wounds. When Vernon re-emerged in spring 2007 he had recovered from his ailments and carried with him a collection of nine personal songs he had recorded. Self-released under the moniker Bon Iver (derived from the greeting “bon hiver”, French for “good winter”) on a small initial pressing in mid-2007 and later reaching worldwide release in 2008, For Emma, Forever Ago sounded like nothing else when it landed. Complex, yet minimalist, the album perfectly evokes the intimate atmosphere in which it was made, every note indelibly placed and resonating to fill the space. Meanwhile, Vernon delivers his cryptic lyrics in an elastic voice charged with emotional energy that stops you in your tracks. It is the sound of loneliness, introspection and, above all, healing. As ‘re:stacks’ fades out at the album’s close, there is the barely perceptible sound of Vernon walking away from the microphone and dialling a number, signalling that he is ready to return form hibernation.

Tom Waits – Blue Valentine

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“I’ll take the spokes from your wheelchair and a magpie’s wings, / And I’ll tie ‘em to your shoulders and your feet”

Despite his gruff exterior (and even gruffer voice) Tom Waits has always had a soft spot for romance, especially where the bungled and the botched are concerned. Even when his characters are in the gutter, more often than not they have one eye cast up at the stars. As Waits began to stretch himself and break out of his boho-poet image he made Blue Valentine, a blues-jazz masterpiece documenting romance in the dark areas of town, and the danger that inevitably follows. In some areas he is the danger (‘Whistlin’ Past The Graveyard and ‘A Sweet Little Bullet From A Pretty Blue Gun’), and sometimes the danger finds him (‘Romeo is Bleeding’, ‘$29.00’). Sometimes he sings with tongue firmly in cheek (‘Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis’) and sometimes he is achingly honest (‘Blue Valentines’). Covering fractured romances in all their comic and heroic guises, Waits’s most triumphant moment is on the poignant ‘Kentucky Avenue’ where he recalls an intense childhood friendship with a boy who suffered from polio. A romantic album for all the broken things out there.

Josh Ritter – The Beast In Its Tracks

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“Oh, the appleblossom rag, lord, I’m such a fool, / For things that sing so sweet and sad, and are so goddamn cruel.”

For a year after a bitter divorce from his wife, songwriter Dawn Landes, Josh Ritter experienced difficulties sleeping, passing out from the exhaustion of an intensive schedule only to be wakened by nightmares. His dreams were so awful he took to fearing sleep, as if his grief were hunting him down. Out of this state came the germs of The Beast In Its Tracks, where he claims songwriting proved a retreat: “Some nights, the songs I was working on helped me stay ahead of it. Other nights, the heartbreak got me”. The album is actually cheerier than its birth might suggest and Ritter delivers much of the album from the perspective of having recovered and become a father in the interim. ‘A Certain Light’ and ‘In Your Arms Again’ sees Ritter safe in the arms of a new lover and thankful for the tranquility. However, The Beast In Its Tracks has plenty of the darkness of those haunted nights too, delivered often by sleight of hand. ‘The Appleblossom Rag’ covers self-deception in a plaintive solo acoustic performance while ‘Evil Eye’ and ‘Nightmares’ bounce along on cheerful melodies which disguise Ritter’s harrowing lyrics documenting his night terrors. Even ‘New Lover’, one of the uplifting singles where Ritter evenhandedly wishes his old lover well in the light of his new, happy relationship, has a sucker-punch at the end so sly that you barely notice it as the song sweeps you along on its jubilant energy: “But if you are sad and you are lonesome and you got nobody true, / I’d be lying if I said that didn’t make me happy too”. Between the bitterness and newfound happiness, Ritter documents a long road to recovery experienced by many of us and perfectly captures that turning point where you realise “Yeah, I’ll live through this” on ‘Joy To You Baby’.

What are your favourite confessional albums? Let me know in the comments below.

[Cover Me]: Arctic Monkeys, Mazzy Star and Johnny Cash

Arctic Monkeys – ‘I Wanna Be Yours’ (Originally by John Cooper Clarke)

Not exactly a cover, so much as a setting of words to music. The influence of John Cooper Clarke’s wordplay has long been evident in Alex Turner’s lyrics and since the Monkey’s last trio of albums has lead them to L.A. and back it seems fitting for their latest offering to come full circle and finish with Carke’s kitchen-sink poetry. Turner’s Sheffield brogue is a perfect foil for Clarke’s Salford drawl as he delivers lines like “Let me be your ‘leccy meter, And I’ll never run out”. Meanwhile, the shuffling beat and swirls of oscillating guitar hold a strong tie to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’s ‘Loverman’ (the band have also covered Cave’s ‘Red Right Hand’, from the same album). Positioned at the end of the album, this song of longing proves to be the woozy hangover at the end of AM‘s long, heavy night.

Mazzy Star – ‘Five String Serenade’ (Originally by Arthur Lee)

Mazzy Star recently released their first album in seventeen years, Seasons of Your Day, and it reminded me of this little beauty from 1993’s So Tonight That I Might See. Originally penned by Arthur Lee of Love, the song choice really lays out the shared Californian genealogy between the two bands. Both bands have a knack for hazy and psychedelic melodies. However, while Arthur Lee’s psych-tinged original wallows amid waves of chorused guitar and shimmering strings, David Roback and Hope Sandoval’s take really accentuates the lullaby at the heart of the song. Roback slows the pace down to a slow dance, accentuating each note in the arpeggio, while the swathes of strings in the original are condensed to a sparse string section. Floating between these and the occasional tambourine shimmer is Sandoval’s sultry drawl, which complete’s the song’s soporific atmosphere. The song lies nestled at the centre of So Tonight That I Might See, and is a spellbinding moment of tender magic.

Johnny Cash – ‘If You Could Read My Mind’ (Originally by Gordon Lightfoot)

It has been ten years since the loss of Johnny Cash, whose American Recordings albums remain a tribute to his power as a performer and a songwriter even in his final years of deteriorating health. His output was so prolific at this stage that he left behind three album’s worth of recorded material that were released after his death. It seems that he was a man wanting to set the record straight before he checked out, and nowhere does this come across as strongly than in his versions of ‘Hurt’ and ‘If You Could Read My Mind’. The latter was penned by Canadian songwriter Gordon Lightfoot and is one of the most evocative and accurate account of a dissolving relationship I have ever come across. Lightfoot’s original was already pretty poignant, but in Cash’s hands the song takes on a whole new poignancy. As with all American Recordings covers, ‘If You Could My Mind’ is stripped down to its very essence, with barebones instrumentation. But, as ever, it is Cash’s entrancing vocals that really clinch it. His voice is recognisable but quavers, betraying his years and deteriorating health, forming cracks in the deep and confident voice which sang ‘I Walk the Line’ and ‘Folsom Prison Blues’. It is the audible hesitation when singing “I’m just trying to understand” and “I just don’t get it” which cuts through to the core. It gets me every time. Rest in peace, Johnny.

[Single Review]: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Jubilee Street

jubilee street-592‘She had a history, but she had no past’

So, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds release their new album, Push The Sky Away, tomorrow and I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty excited about it. I’ve followed Nick Cave’s output for the best part of ten years now and he’s one of those rare artists that is relentlessly energetic and not afraid to turn their hand to anything. From film soundtracks to novels and all points in between, everything he touches turns golden. If there’s one artist you can always place good money on, it’s Nick Cave.

I suppose the reason I’m so interested in this album is that it will be the first Bad Seeds record to be released since the departure of Cave’s first mate, Mick Harvey. This move didn’t seem so strange as since No More Shall We Part, one of my favourite Nick Cave albums, Cave has been gravitating closer towards Warren Ellis as a songwriting partner, most evident in their stunning film soundtracks. This also means that the difference between the crews of the Bad Seeds and Cave’s busman’s holiday, Grinderman, is even smaller than before. Obviously, this means that there is an increased risk that the output of both bands will start to mimic the other. So I suppose I’m anxious as well as excited.

Listening to the two preview tracks from Push The Sky Away, ‘Jubilee Street’ and ‘We No Who U R’, it seems that these fears may be hopefully allayed. These songs definitely do not belong to the lecherously raucous domain of Grinderman. If anything, it seems that the departure of Mick Harvey’s groove-driven guitarwork has allowed for more space for the Bad Seeds to stretch out in. That is not to discredit Harvey, far from it. I consider him to be one of the most tactful and talented musicians of the last 25 years and his work with PJ Harvey is as great as his Bad Seeds work. But, these tracks are definitely of a more meditative and contemplative atmosphere that bears more resemblance to Cave’s soundtrack work than with any Bad Seeds or Grinderman precursor. They’re restrained and muscular, as if Cave and co. are pulling their punches, not quite revealing all. The bass, percussion and organ elements are definitely more fleshed out and it allows for what I can only really describe as ‘space to breathe’.

‘Jubilee Street’, named after what Cave mistakenly thought to be the red-light district in Brighton, is arguably the strongest ballad Cave has written since 2004’s Abattoir Blues/Lyre of Orpheus and, in typical Cave style, is about the relationship between a prostitute and her john. It’s a track that is beautiful in its restrained simplicity: The groove is solemn, the beats are minimal and the strings are lean and refined. The mood lingers somewhere between reverence and menace (Cave’s prime stomping grounds) and allows the perfect platform for Cave’s half parable/half pulp novel. It is a testament to Cave’s subtle yet commanding vocals that he can make a line like ‘I’ve got a foetus on a leash’ sound completely acceptable (given the circumstances) rather than shocking and distasteful. Juxtaposed with these raw moments are some of Cave’s finest cut sentiments, like ‘Here I come up the hill, / I’m pushing my wheel of love’ and ‘ten-ton catastrophe on a sixty-pound chain’. The song’s finale is magnificent, lifting Cave’s sermon to transcendental heights. That may sound wishy-washy, but honestly, it is that good. Ray Winstone also puts in a surprisingly restrained performance in the video.

If tracks such as this are any indication, then Push the Sky Away is looking to be a rewardingly enigmatic affair where the Bad Seeds have lost none of their energy and gravitas for their restraint. If anything it has honed and refined their craft to scalpel sharp keenness. The music seems more spiritual and gestures to what may lie beyond the song, rather than defining its limits. Maybe that’s what the forthcoming album’s title, Push The Sky Away, is really suggesting: an indication of the infinite.

Push The Sky Away will be available 18th February through Mute Records.