Nick Cave and Warren Ellis The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

[Mute; 2008]

Styles: A Dirty Three album written by Nick Cave
Others: Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett, Wild Bill Hickok, Jack McCall

Nick Cave has been quite the busy musician lately. In the past year, he has written both the script and soundtrack for the brutal and atmospheric Western The Proposition, unleashed the mustachioed fury of his new garage band Grinderman on a self-titled album, prepped an upcoming Bad Seeds joint called Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!, and, finally, has released a soundtrack to a little-seen but much-appreciated Brad Pitt feature with a long fucking title. (Full disclosure: this reviewer has yet to see the movie, but it is sitting atop his Netflix queue).

Is it better to review a soundtrack without seeing the film first? It depends. After watching the film, a soundtrack can conjure images to mind and bring back scenes the viewer found particularly powerful. But at the same time, the deck is stacked; rather than reviewing the music based on its own merits, a new dimension is included. In a way, the film itself is reviewed as well.

Warren Ellis, a classically-trained violinist, hooked up with Nick Cave in 1995 when Cave invited him to guest on Murder Ballads. He soon become an official Bad Seed, and the two have been collaborating together ever since. Mick Harvey, Cave’s main collaborator since the days of The Birthday Party, has been pushed to the peripheries of the band and original Bad Seed Blixa Bargeld bowed out following 2003’s Nocturama.

The soundtrack to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford sounds a lot like the music of Warren Ellis’ band The Dirty Three. Melancholy and wistful, the tracks bleed together, autumnal dirges filling with the quiet hush of Ellis’ fiddle and Cash’s mournful piano. One can imagine the wide open spaces of the Wild West in these spare numbers. But unlike The Dirty Three’s music, these tracks are not intended to be songs. This is merely incidental music.

But that’s all there is here: funereal background music. Without the film to reference, the melodies on this album equal very little more than sad music to wash the dishes to. The sounds on this album are lovely. They summon a time and place that no longer exist, but Assassination is not something anyone, loyal Nick Cave fan or otherwise, will give more than few cursory spins before shelving it to collect dust like an old ghost town.

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