How NOT to write about music – 116. Coldplay


A new Coldplay album has been announced. It’s a double. Twice the amount of flatulence and cack for all concerned. The only reasonable response to such a morale-sapping, life-emulsifying event is, I feel, to make a list. A list of:


Here’s the rub. Usually, when people write such lists they detail such ridiculous scenarios about how they would rather “poke my eyes out with red-hot pokers…” or “have a threesome with David Cameron and a greased piglet…” or “listen to a continuous 24-hour tape-loop of Boris Johnston proroguing Parliament…”, always ending with the phrase “… than listen to the new Coldplay album”.

This is patently absurd.

I most assuredly would NOT prefer to poke my eyes out with red-hot pokers, listen to a 24-hour tape loop of Boris Johnston proroguing Parliament, have a threesome with David Cameron and a greased piglet, nor would I rather watch the entire run of Breaking Bad, clean up all the dog shit from a weekend on Hampstead Heath, go on a dinner date with Jeremy Clarkson, punch ears in my earlobes and attach myself to a Morris Dancer’s bashing stick, get some form of incurable disease or lead a pro-Brexit rally rather than listen to the new Coldplay album. Let’s get a sense of perspective here.

Here are 10 things I would actually rather do than listen to the new Coldplay album.

  1. Listen to the new Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ album
  2. Go for a walk
  3. Listen to the new Lana Del Rey album
  4. Have a bath
  5. Listen to the new Kim Gordon album
  6. Get a haircut
  7. Listen to the new Beyoncé album
  8. Have a chat with Howard Monk
  9. Listen to the new Angel Olsen album
  10. Go to sleep


How NOT to write about music – 113. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds


Around 23.05, I started crying.

I can’t even imagine. I don’t even want to imagine…

How much should a man be defined by events that happen in his life outside of his control? This is not the question, surely. The question is: how much is a man defined by his response to the events that happen in his life outside of his control? It is near impossible to judge people when everything goes well: what matters is the response when everything does not go well.

I write as someone who sometimes likes to pretend he has little to no memory of what transpired before – it’s not pretense, not usually – but also as someone who increasingly finds his life trajectory as a series of fits and bursts, the disc stuck and skipping at certain unavoidable points, defined by what happened to me outside of my control (mostly). If I have a problem with the ghost of my former self it is this: he had such casual brilliant brutal disregard for others and others’ feelings – not that I want to make him out to be callous or indifferent, just that his lack of perspective, lack of responsibility, served him so well. Jealousy. All my life I attempted to make others jealous and now I have come full circle, jealous of my former self: so successful that I find it near impossible to move on, however I try.

Maybe I don’t want to try. Maybe I want to linger, explain, learn.

Some basic information for you: commonly held to be an artistic high point in a career (arguably) full of artistic high points, this is the album many expected Skeleton Tree to be and gives the lie to the perception that the male voice weakens with age. It raises issues of performance vs non-performance, it raises goosebumps *not a word to be used lightly*, it makes the listener question right from the off precisely what they are listening out for, why they are listening, what they are listening to. (Amy Winehouse was an incredible singer and performer: so why do most people only talk about anything but?)

There are no “rock” songs, if rock is what you’re after. (I have no idea why rock would be what you’re after, but that is another conversation for another time.) The lyrics are direct, if you choose to interpret them that way. The music is what is (lazily) referred to as “atmospheric” – sombre, drawn-out, as full of silence as it is of sound, no pulse or back beat, not really, the passage of time marked by stately piano chords and vocal accentuation, the moment stretched out and decaying with every passing second and repeated line. A friend says it reminds him a little of Suicide, but I have no idea what that means. (I have an idea, obviously. I am just saying this for effect.) Ambient. Electronic mystery. What some would refer to as “dreamscapes” although in my experience “dreamscapes” is a meaningless description. (Think about it.)

This is art, on a very high level indeed. It makes you question your own life and perceptions and preconceptions. It is not comfort music. It is near impossible to listen to on any level except as a fully engaged active listener. You could put it on as background music, I suppose – but why the hell would you want to do that? That’s a long way to go to find peace of mind.

Would he have got five-star reviews whatever he produced? I mean, whatever.

Walker, Cohen, Cash, C.S Lewis… fill in your own. I don’t know what I’m doing here really, but I am so happy that Nick Cave exists in my world. “Try to imagine nothing,” Isaac once said to me when he was 4 or 5. “You can’t.” The question most folk address is what happens when we’re dead, but really it should be what happens before we’re born. This life seems a fucking rotten one, most the time.

Around 23.05, I started crying. Thirty seconds later, I had to switch the music off.

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”