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The NI Star rating system. Music

Murder Ballads
by Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds
(Mute Stumm 138 CD)

Nick Cave That Nick Cave has themed his latest – and tenth – solo album around murder should surprise no-one. The Australian songwriter has long spoken of his fascination for what he calls the ‘language of violence’. Earlier songs like The Mercy Seat, an account of a condemned killer’s last moments before execution or John Finn’s Wife, a humid story of lust and death, were both musically and dramatically tours de forces. Cave’s epic approach to songs marks him out as a fine storyteller with an astute talent for broad, vivid lines. His own language is unique in current rock music: peppered with Biblical imagery mixed with that of American folk song: his facility for words is matched only by older peers, Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen.

There are some truly chilling songs, like Song of Joy which appropriates some of Satan’s best lines from Paradise Lost in a way that consciously blurs the identity of the killer. There are some hilarious songs: the Curse of Millhaven, a romping inventory of the exploits of a teenage psycho named Laureate, is straight out of Tom Lehrer.

Murder Ballads arrives at a moment when rock music is being scrutinized by censors in the grip of a moral panic. Recent furore surrounding rap albums from black American artists has suggested a casual link: that singing about violence is tantamount to inciting it. This is, in my opinion, a spurious logic which conceals a more generalized fear about violence itself. Cave’s enduring power is to confront the passion and its capacity to be simultaneously destructive and creative. Singing about death is another way of approaching life. And the fact that Cave is, at heart, an old-fashioned moralist is often ignored.

There are many reasons why Murder Ballads is a superlative album. Cave’s voice is a constantly maturing vehicle, the deep tones startling and moving. Guitarists Blixa Bargeld and Mick Haney produce a multi-textured roughness while percussionist Jim Sclavunus and pianist Conway Savage provide the sparse, rhythmical undertow characteristic of Cave’s music. There is nothing superfluous, nothing redundant. Cave may take his cues from raw blues and preacher songs but he does so in a way that enlarges the format. And in his unflinching recognition of the very ordinariness of violence there is nothing gratuitous. A rare, superb treat.

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The Thousand Faces of Night
by Githa Hariharan
(Women’s Press ISBN 0-7043-4465-3)

The Thousand Faces of Night This is a novel about the elemental things of life: about love and death, about women and men, story and myth, passion and loneliness and clashes of cultures and of continents. Three women, Devi, Sita and Mayamma, span three generations and encompass three goddesses in their names.

Each of them has their own story to tell: Devi, the daughter, educated in America, married to the pompous Mahesh; Sita, the mother, sacrificing herself to the gods of reason, order and progress, and Mayamma, the old servant, married when still a girl to a drunken husband and abused by husband, mother-in-law and son.

Githa Hariharan revels in colour, taste and smell. The book brims with the smells of coconut oil and sweat, with the colours of the flowers in the garden: ‘laburnum, with topaz grapes clustering among the sunlit leaves, brilliant pink and white acacia, cream and lemon-yellow frangipani, hazy, plum-coloured jacarandas,’ with the feel of the echoing empty house and with the weight of other people’s censure: ‘a woman without a child, say the sages, goes to hell.’

You must obey society’s rules or terrible things will happen. And if you cannot do this, at least you must pretend; pretend to be a good wife; put on your sari of shimmering red and white silk and pretend to love entertaining your husband’s colleagues and their wives, pretend that you are never sick:

‘My grandmother fed me this story with her bony fingers, just as she fed me the gooey medicinal potions she brewed when I was ill. She sprinkled it with powdered jaggery and pretended it was sweet. I played the game by the rules and pretended to get better immediately.’

These rules, like the lives of the goddesses whose stories weave in and out of the story with silken threads, can be brutal. Devi’s grandmother’s stories throw strange reflections on lived reality; the princess Gandhari who found on her marriage that she ruled a palace where ‘priceless gems, the size of ripe pumpkins, hung at the tips of chandeliers’. But when she finally meets her new husband, she sees he has ‘white eyes, glazed and useless’. Gandhari, in fury at the deception, tears off a piece of her thick red skirt and ties it around her own eyes.

Like Gandhari the three women in the book have to find a way to come to terms with life. Devi chafes at the rules of her new marital situation – ‘the housewife should always be joyous, adept at domestic work, neat in her domestic wares, and restrained in expenses’. But she feels trapped in her house and her role; she longs for passion, for abandonment, and tries to find it by running away into the arms of a lover, the slick and bearded musician Gopal.

‘A woman meets her fate alone’, Devi’s grandmother tells her. The Thousand Faces of Night reveals just how true this is. But it also leaves us with hope for a different kind of future.

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Small Faces
directed by Gilles Mackinnon

directed by Danny Boyle

The young literary scene in Scotland has caused much excitement in recent years. Now it’s cinema’s turn. Small Faces, Gilles and Billy Mackinnon’s wry, sometimes dark tale of growing up in Glasgow in the late 1960s, marks an important point. And the feverish, much-acclaimed Trainspotting – though directed by an Englishman – is also very much a Scottish project, based on Edinburgh writer Irvine Welsh’s cult novel and produced and scripted by two Scots.

No doubt the films will be claimed as ‘British’ triumphs as they scoop up prizes and critical plaudits. But they clearly derive their energy and substance from contemporary Scottish culture and sense of place – and it’s not the Scotland of the Hollywood historical epics Braveheart and Rob Roy, where the country becomes just a rugged, heather-covered backdrop for romanticized tales of struggle.

Small Faces focuses on young Lex McLean – an impish, somewhat precocious 13 year old who is torn between the examples set by his two elder teenage brothers. Alan, who plans to be a painter, has a somewhat detached, dreamy view of life, while Bobby is the robust pragmatist who has already become embroiled in the edgy gang culture. While the film is very much rooted in a particular grim reality – gang crime in Glasgow at that particular time was notorious – it has a gothic, fantastical flourish to it as with one eerie moment when the lads horseplay about with skeletons – Alan uses them for his drawing studies. It is beautifully composed and resonant sequences like this which send the film soaring. The Scottish new wave is here.

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T H E[image, unknown] C L A S S I C
Masque of the Red Death
...being the albums that shriek, growl, whisper and coo against complacency.

Kneeling by my bed as a child I would rip through my prayers. What came out was a rapid-fire mumble, an evaporation for a hazy God. From such shaky beginnings came years of agnostic search. Post-modern ideas about the God-concept seemed to be frozen by notions of terminal cool. The bleakness of life has become an artistic cop-out and catch-all. God is now either passé or a fascist. Neither attitude implies dialogue. Most of us uneasy with the constraints of formal religion prefer not to let the idea of God bother us unduly.

It is in this context that Diamanda Galás’s Masque of the Red Death makes an unsettling challenge, though its concerns, at first sight, are very different.

Diamanda Galás is a Greek-American diva with a three-and-a-half octave vocal range. This fact in itself is not so remarkable, but within her larynx dwell notes that aren’t on any octave: they’re the missing keys of the keyboard, fierce, visceral, tormented sounds – growls, whispers, shrieks, death rattles, unctuous cooing, soprano glissandi, shamanic slithers. Members of the audience have been known to faint and have panic attacks during live performances. Her piano style, honed whilst playing with jazz legend Ornette Coleman in the 1970s, is lean and aggressive, carving out an aural space for this voice.

Galás’s entire body of work is a blast against complacency. Its provocations are often misinterpreted – her records have been exorcised by right-wing Christian groups and the Italian press denounced her for blasphemy. But it is exactly the kind of hardline religiosity that brooks no challenges, that condemns people to be either devout or pariahs, that she so effectively attacks.

Masque of the Red Death is a trilogy in response to the bigotry that some sections of the church displayed in the face of the AIDS crisis. But it also deals with the age-old questions of the meaning of human suffering.

The first part – The Divine Punishment (1986) – is derived almost entirely from Old Testament texts and exposes the kind of medieval loathing of the body that some sections of the church regressed to when faced with AIDS, transforming their God into a blind and merciless tyrant that would punish ‘perverts’. Interspersed are texts from the Psalms where the innocent cry out, forsaken by God and surrounded by enemies. Galás creates a bleak and merciless wasteland from these sacred texts, exposing the lack of Christian charity of the religious Right. On the closing track of the album the outcast affirms all the condemnation (‘I am the Holy Fool/ I am the shit of God’), reclaiming the abuse in a radical stance of complete defiance.

Masque of the Red Death

Saint of the Pit (1988) uses the hothouse lyricism of Baudelaire, Nerval and Corbière with all their anti-heroic despair to create an album of heart-wrenching beauty. The opening vocal is a lament called Deliver Me which draws on Greek traditions of angry mourning, her voice soaring into the stratosphere, blazing against fatalism despite the inevitability of having to accept fate. This attitude values the human spirit against the virus – whether the virus be Hiv or social malaise – and is the crux of the album, a large part of which is dedicated to her brother Philip-Dimitri, who had recently died of AIDS-related illness.

The final album, You Must Be Certain of the Devil (1988), transgresses upon more popular territory: gospel and rock. On the title track Galás squeals like Aretha Franklin on speed, subverting gospel comfort to the idea that evil is all around us and that goodness in the light of this fact is not just a state of mind but an active fight. The album closes with a chilling recital of The Lord is My Shepherd in a deathbed voice that gasps and wheezes for every breath, the reassuring words barely discernible. This juxtaposition of the corporeal reality of death with the metaphysical promise of eternal life is excruciating; it opens every fear of the void that religion is used as a prop against.

Needless to say Galás is not a darling of rock journalism. She has been branded a ‘terrorist’, ‘a screeching hag’ and her records voted as ‘most likely to rid your house of unwelcome guests’. In a hugely sexist industry, she has zero bimbo appeal. A recent album exposed the misogyny of macho music with mordant humour – the cover showed Diamanda lounging on a flash car’s bonnet, knife in hand, ready, it would appear, to harvest testicles. No-one else sounds remotely like her and the territory she covers is fraught with danger. Her work ruthlessly exposes insecurity, it is provocative and challenging, and whereas for many it is just too threatening, for others its honesty is essential and a source of realizing one’s own power. What’s the point of suffering? it asks. The answer seems to be both that there is no point and that facing up to it with humane courage is the point.

Dinyar Godrej

Masque of the Red Death by Diamanda Galás is available through Mute Records.

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©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996

New Internationalist issue 278 magazine cover This article is from the April 1996 issue of New Internationalist.
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