How NOT to write about music – 23: Johnny Cash

johnny cash

The opening line…

The opening line comes from a Leadbelly song…

But the Leadbelly line is taken from a far deeper tradition that goes back decades, centuries even…

(Listen to this version! So damn good.)

I’ve been performing this song on stage for years now, unaccompanied for the most part. There’s nothing lightweight about it. I know precisely why I am singing it and who I am I singing it for. It usually has the effect of reducing a room to chilled awkward silence, except for one memorable time in Olympia when the entire audience began singing along in unscripted beautiful three-part harmony.

This Johnny Cash song… oh fuck. This Johnny Cash song I heard a few nights back when I was watching the tail-end of an OK if somewhat overdone (in terms of violence and its own self-importance) movie about a tired mutant nearing the end of his life. I do not know which inspired genius decided to place it right there, at the film’s end: it did not complement the film content – instead it threw the entire movie into stark relief, showed it up for what it was, storytelling that resonates for only as long as the flickering images are there in front of your eyes (like life itself, I guess). You think generations of male filmmakers and storytellers, from Tarantino and Eastwood onward, through Peaky Blinders and the rest of the Game Of Thrones shebang, have not been trying (and failing) to duplicate what Johnny Cash does with such ease here, over the course of a few sparse lines and inflections…

It is one of the last songs Cash wrote before his death, and most everything sounds overdone next to this… even if the lyrics are way Book of Revelations.

I’d like to say Nick Cave stole his Kicking Against The Pricks album title from a line in this song, but that title is drawn from acts 9, verse 5, Acts of the Apostles:

I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks

I would reprint the lyrics, but what would be the point?

It is all in the voice.


How NOT to write about music – 3. Marianne Faithfull


OK. So what would you like to read in a blog entry about the new Marianne Faithfull single and album?

The press release has it that “Negative Capability is Marianne Faithfull’s 21st album and the most emotionally powerful of her 54-year recording career”; a grandiose claim that rather oddly has the effect of dismissing the rest of the singer’s rather daunting catalogue as being emotionally second-rate. The new single, featuring Warren Ellis on violin and Nick Cave on backing vocals, is fine – but on a cursory listen does not sound any more (or any less) emotionally powerful than her wonderful and fatalistic 17th album, 2005’s Before The Poison, for example. She has collaborated with other musicians for years  – and the descriptions being thrown her way for decades, “poetic and unnerving”, “honey-over-gravel voice” or “dark and desolate” – could equally as well apply here.

Faithfull is similar to Cave inasmuch as she never quite lets you forget she is a performer. This new single is reminiscent of Cave’s own ‘Helpless’.

OK. So what would you like to read in a blog entry about the new Marianne Faithfull single and album?

Information, supposition, procrastination.

Faithfull is a highly respected and established artist: so how does her new material match up to her past material? It matches up just fine. Uh, nothing matches ‘Broken English’. Nothing. And that sure had no tasteful arrangements. Incidentally, I love the way the version I’ve linked to on YouTube keeps skipping at the start.

What are her lyrical concerns? What is her current life status? Who are her current collaborators? From the press release again: “Facing down arthritis and bolstered by collaborators including Warren Ellis, Nick Cave, Rob Ellis, Ed Harcourt and Mark Lanegan, Negative Capability is charged with brutal honesty and autobiographical reflection as she addresses losing old friends, her loneliness living in her adopted city of Paris, and love.” You need more than this? Insight, validation of your own taste, passion? Truth to tell the song sounds a little too polished – the starkness of her performed reality feels like it needs less orchestration than Ellis’ lush weeping, the sombre piano.

I am not trying to be negative here, just realistic. I love Marianne’s voice and music. I like this new single. But realism is the last thing anyone wants from critics, correct?

OK. Here’s a fast pop quiz for anyone interested. Keep a track of the news stories and first reviews running around ‘The Gypsy Faerie Queen’ and Negative Capability – see how many quote word-for-word from the press release in the paragraph above. That is not music criticism or evaluation. That is simple laziness, plagiarism. Yet this is what gets called music criticism the world over.

Note to blog writers: Pause for an hour. Go for a coffee, a meeting, a sleep, a sexual encounter. Do not press ‘publish’ until you have given yourself some space for private mediation, a chance to expand upon your own brief.

“I only listen to her sing
And I never hear her talking”