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Jazz/Blues Punk/Rock

Looking Back: More News From Nowhere – Nick Cave’s Homeric Ballad to his Many Muses

Nick Cave is a literary magpie, and even in appearance he reflects that of the spry ominous bird – all pale and dressed in black. His lyricism shows more than an understanding of the written word, but a playfulness that allows him to creatively bend the rules of telling a story. To me, no song in his archive reflects this better than ‘More News From Nowhere’ (from the legendary 2008 album ‘Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!’) which blurs the line between melody and epic poetry. 

Nick Cave takes Homer’s Odyssey and plucks out the pieces of its imagery that sparkle most for him, most notably ‘I saw Miss Polly singing with some girls, I cried – struck me to the mast’. With the character of Miss Polly as PJ Harvey and her biography by James R. Blandford being titled ‘Siren Rising’, this is perhaps the easiest lyric to decipher. The Sirens in the Odyssey being one of the more famous parts of the tale, where Odysseus commands his men to tie him to the mast of their ship and to stuff their ears with wax, in order to avoid temptation and avert a deadly fate. To read further into this metaphor would be complete speculation, but we can safely say from all evidence that the connection between Cave and Harvey still retains a lot of power and poetry to this day. 

We are told that the character of ‘Betty X’ has hair ‘like the wine-dark sea on which sailors come home’. ‘Wine-dark sea’ is an epithet used by Homer, ‘οἶνοψ πόντος’ / ‘oînops póntos’, with the literal translation meaning ‘wine-face sea’. It is used twelve times in the Odyssey, and a further five in the Iliad. This use of colour within both Homer and Cave’s writing is definitely more romantic than accurate, however, historian PG Maxwell-Stuart argued that the use of ‘wine’ could attest more to temperament than shade. In the case of Nick Cave, the journey in this song is in part about his battles with sobriety. With Homer’s use of this epithet being for when the seas were black, tempestuous, and unpredictable – we can see how this reflects in the behaviours that are known to come with addiction. The role of who ‘Betty X’ may remain unclear, but another lyric – ‘so much wind blew through her words, I went rolling down the hall’, reflects the ruler Aeolus, gifting Odysseus a westerly wind to guide him home. This reference to the return home, as well as the wine-dark sea hair being a vessel for return, leads me to believe that Betty X is in fact the raven-haired Susie Cave. She is the symbol of home for him, she is the destination after the odyssey, and he sings of her light and how her light is all her own. 

In almost every stanza, we are introduced to a new female figure who adds a different element to Nick Cave’s narrative – the only one unnamed being ‘a black girl with no clothes on’. He sings of her dancing, calls her his ‘Nubian princess’, and unveils that he ‘spent the next seven years between her legs pining for my wife’. My attempt to unpick a real-life identity for this figure, such as with Miss Polly or Betty X, was fruitless. However, my research leads me to believe that she represents something other than a person. Seven years is how long Odysseus spent on Ogygia, the island of Calypso the nymph daughter of Atlas. Throughout those seven years, Calypso seduces Odysseus, even going so far as to offer him immortality in exchange for his hand in marriage. Odysseus rejects this offer, longing for his home and wife, Penelope, but only manages to escape the island when the

Gods intervene. Modern Greek tradition likens Ogygia to be an island nearabouts Greece itself, but the geographer and traveller Strabo argued that the placement of the island is more likely to be in the middle of the Atlantic ocean, placing it below the equator. Perhaps this is why Nick Cave chose for Calypso to be represented by a black woman, since this placement of the island would dictate a dark skin tone for its inhabitants, as well as for Calypso herself. Even with describing her as Nubian, we can read in translations of the text that Homer describes Calypso as weaving upon a loom with a shuttle made from gold, and the very root of the word ‘Nubia’ translates to ‘the land of gold’ in Ancient Egyptian. Why wasn’t Cave’s Calypso granted the humanity of a name? Maybe she is a personification of heroin due to the intoxicating words he attributes to her, and leaving her unnamed reflects the dehumanisation that can be left in its wake; perhaps she is the embodiment of the revelry some can have in the wallows of depression, the sick comfort you can find in the sadness. 

‘More News from Nowhere’ references the idea of the journey, the long and arduous adventure that comes hand in hand with being alive. The song is long, slow, and repetitive. With the chorus comes the slow echoing chant of ‘More News from Nowhere’, reminiscent of a Greek chorus or sailors singing as they row upon the oars of old ships. In recitals of epic poems in Ancient Greece, music would be used to emphasise parts of the story, as well as recurring lamentations. The tune hardly veers from its path, the vocals barely stray from a specific pattern, the steady beat is a simplistic foil to the complex nature of the lyrics. The melody only shifts as Cave sings ‘and it’s getting strange in here, and it gets stranger every year’ / ‘don’t it make you feel alone, don’t it make you want to get right back home’, punctuating the absurdities and emphasising a yearning for stability before returning to the compelling monotony. Jim Sclavunos is on the drums, the anchored heartbeat akin to waves smacking against a bow, with Martyn P. Casey on bass providing a solid foundation for that triumphant earworm of a riff, played by Warren Ellis plucking upon a viola. Nick Cave himself veers away from Homer for the final verse, existentially expressing the futilities of living with ‘everything you do today, tomorrow is obsolete’, before committing one final chant of the song title ‘More News From Nowhere’, taken from the 1890 utopian socialist novel by William Morris – yet another example of Cave as that literary magpie, creating a collage with his words. In spite of it’s existentialist ending, it is a song seemingly designed to keep you moving, to get you from one place to the next. I listen to it as I walk the streets of London, as I look out of train windows, or as my plane takes off into the sky. ‘More News from Nowhere’ is a song made of pure momentum, despairing at the godlike forces beyond our control but still nonetheless pushing forward.

Categories
Indie/Indie Rock Punk/Rock Why We Love

Why We Love: Courtney Barnett

With albums like IDLES ‘Ultra Mono’ and so many other spectacular artists from the same vain currently dominating the UK charts, it’s safe to say we could be on the very edge of a new era for music and the true revival period for 80’s grunge. If hearing this makes you jump for joy, then the songs of guitarist Courtney Barnett from Melbourn are certainly ‘must-haves’ on your playlists.

After first hitting big on the underground rock scene in 2012 with her self released EP, ‘I’ve Got a Friend Called Emily Ferris’, Courtney Barnett has since grown to become one of the most talked-about rising modern rock stars of today. After two studio albums and a host of incredible singles, Courtney has earnt phenomenal praise and worldwide recognition for her garage rock sound and muddy ’90s style. This is an artist who certainly never disappoints and a woman who truly embodies the spirit of ’90s MTV Nostalgia – talented AF, cool as hell, she might just be the Kurt Cobain of her generation.

Home-made and humorous, not only does Courtney Barnett produce smashing tune after smashing tune, she continues to amaze us with her terrific funny music videos.

Along with her neutral wit and creative humour, Courtney has brought something we love about music back to the world; a feeling on authenticity, high-school DIY band vibes and a persona inspired by her classic rock influences. Commonly pictured with a Fender guitar around her, the attributes of Barnett’s grunge pioneer predecessors Johnny Marr, John Squire and Thurston Moore are not lost on this extraordinary talent.

Her early experience in music as a guitarist in several garage and psych-country bands still shines through in her music today, both in the melodies and production of her songs and through the southern twang in her slumberous vocal style.

Old school and modern at the same time, one of her more recent tunes ‘Nameless, Faceless’ from her 2018 album ‘Tell Me How You Really Feel’, along with the songs animated video, is very much in the spirit of ’90s MTV and also reminds us of Franz Ferdinand’s ‘Take Me Out’ music video from 2004.

Since the release of her last single ‘Everybody Here Hates You’ in 2019, Courtney has been quiet about any new material she may be working on since Woodstock 50 festival had to be cancelled at the start of the year, but we have seen a great cover of Kev Carmondy’s ‘Just for you’ as well as many great new songs emerging from artists signed to her self-founded record label, Milk! Records.

Courtney has been known to collaborate frequently with other artists, this week she appeared in Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy’s creative lockdown music video for his new single ‘Gwendolyn.’

We’re dead excited to hear Courtney Barnett come blasting back onto the scene with new material soon, but for now at least we can rest assured that artists like Courtney exist in the world. We can sleep easy knowing that grunge is not truly dead.

Courtney Barnett is on tour in the UK with Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds from April 13th. Get your tickets here.

Listen to Courtney Barnett’s most recent single Everybody Here Hates You on YouTube and Spotify now.