Nick Cave and Warren Ellis - The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (2008)

Nick Cave and Warren Ellis - The Assassination Of Jesse James
By The Coward Robert Ford (2008)

GENRE: Avant Garde, Blues
STYLE: Alternative, Experimental, Blues, Noise
LABEL: (Mute)

Nick Cave's a ridiculously consistent songwriter, but there's one gift he possesses that eludes even his most prolific and talented peers: An incomparable sense of discipline. Factor in work with the Bad Seeds, solo albums, Grinderman, novels, scores, collaborations, and 2005's The Proposition-- the brutal, fly-specked Australian western that Cave wrote and (with the help of Warren Ellis) also scored-- and the man appears a veritable cottage industry.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (directed by Cave's fellow Aussie indie iconoclast Andrew Dominik and beautifully lit and shot by cinematographer Roger Deakins) is, like The Proposition, an eccentric western. But unlike most eccentric westerns, in Jesse James the dread is balanced by a hypnotic, elegiac quality, and the plot's inevitability (see: the title) is tempered by Brad Pitt's and Casey Affleck's haunting and enigmatic performances (the latter has earned an Oscar nod and a ton of critics prizes for his turn as a would-be stalker, as did Deakins for his lensing).
If The Proposition is heavily indebted to the sadistic violence of spaghetti westerns, The Assassination of Jesse James owes much to the impressionistic work of Terrence Malick, and for that it paid a price: The average moviegoer had to work overtime just to find the artful film playing anywhere on the big screen, and even then likely missed it-- which of course meant missing yet another evocative, doom-draped Cave/Ellis score.
With long stretches of no dialogue and a focus on landscapes as much as characters, there's a lot of room in the movie for the cues devised by Cave and Ellis to take center stage. "Rather Lovely Thing" (later reprised as "Another Rather Lovely Thing", naturally) sets the tone of the film with its melodramatic droning, melancholy piano, and folky fiddle. Meanwhile, "Song for Jesse" is the cue that seems to crop up the most in the film, its eerie bells and keys are thoughtful, menacing, pretty, and ghostly all at once.
A few other passages feature more traditional orchestration; among them, the dark, dreamlike "The Money Train", the strings and percussion of "What Happens Next", and the bittersweet eulogy "Song for Bob". Others are more abstract, like the harmonium-lead "Last Ride Back to KC". "Cowgirl" and "Carnival" provide a tiny hint of relief from the oppressive moodiness of scene-setters such as "Falling" and "Destined for Great Things"-- the latter's foreboding vibe magnified when you think back to the film's early moments, where the movie's central tragedy is set in motion.
In fact, when Cave makes a brief appearance in the film's waning minutes-- playing a grungy troubadour, of course, strolling the length of a bar as he growls the oft-sung folk tribute to Jesse James-- you almost get the feeling that in some ways it's been Cave, by way of his score, telling the story all along. At the very least, he and Ellis are providing some much needed punctuation when Dominik chooses to, for example, linger on a pained Pitt as he plays James in one of his inscrutable manic-depressive funks. Of course, minus those unforgettable images, the Cave/Ellis score loses much of its vital context, but that's what DVDs are for.
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Maybe it's the aching romanticism, maybe it's the moral absolutes or maybe it's just all that gorgeous blood and thunder, but the New Western has proved fertile ground for some of rock's wildest mavericks. Bob Dylan infamously appeared in and scored Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid. Robert Altman shot to a soundtrack of Leonard Cohen songs on McCabe and Mrs Miller. And Neil Young provided an oddball addition to the canon with his work on Jim Jarmusch's inscrutably deadpan Dead Man.

Having long aspired to precisely that company, Nick Cave is fast becoming the go-to guy to soundtrack your modern-day existential horse opera. He paired up with long-time Bad Seed/Grinderman accomplice Warren Ellis in 2005 to provide music for his own outback vengeance drama The Proposition, and now the duo have been commissioned by Aussie auteur Andrew Dominik (director of the stunning Chopper, among others) to score his would-be Malickian adaptation of Ron Hansen's novel, The Assassination of Jesse James...

The Proposition featured tracks with such functional titles as "Sad Violin Thing" and "Gun Thing", and the new record kicks off with an ominous piano and violin number called "A Rather Lovely Thing". In truth, half of a dozen of the tracks here could be similarly titled. Dominik's ambitions for his movie were apparently scuppered by the studio, but that doesn't seem to have had any effect on the music which is thick with atmosphere, though -- entirely instrumental -- short on incident. Cave makes a brief cameo in the film, to sing a Jesse-inspired folksong with Zooey Deschanel, but that makes no appearance here. Instead we get a rich, heady musical moonshine, at its best on the twinkling spooked piano of "Song for Jesse".

01. Rather Lovely Thing 3:13
02. Moving On 2:32
03. Song For Jesse 2:35
04. Falling 2:54
05. Cowgirl 4:05
06. The Money Train 2:38
07. What Must Be Done 1:57
08. Another Rather Lovely Thing 3:28
09. Carnival 2:52
10. Last Ride Back To KC 5:24
11. What Happens Next 2:08
12. Destined For Great Things 2:26
13. Counting The Stars 1:19
14. Song For Bob

The Assassination Of Jesse James
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Supported by [Damir Salama]