Nick Cave’s roots in the film world reach back at least twenty years, from his appearance with the Bad Seeds in Wim Wenders’ classic Wings of Desire. Even so, it’s always a pleasant surprise to hear one of his songs pop up on a soundtrack, often in the unlikeliest of places. I certainly didn’t expect to hear his voice when I saw Shrek 2 or Winged Migration, to name just two of the more out of left field examples. In recent years, Cave has dabbled a bit more in film music, frequently in collaboration with Bad Seeds’ violinist Warren Ellis. Their latest score, for Andrew Dominik’s vastly underrated The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, is a mournful, delicate work that marks a significant progression for the team as film composers.
Don’t expect to hear the version of “Jesse James” performed by Nick Cave in his appearance in the film here. In fact, unlike Cave & Ellis’ previous score for the Cave-written western The Proposition, The Assassination of Jesse James is entirely instrumental. The first few seconds of the opening track, “Rather Lovely Thing”, could easily open a Bad Seeds album similar to The Boatman’s Call or No More Shall We Part. But as Ellis’ violin creeps in, it becomes apparent that the music here is not bound by traditional song structure. This is more atmospheric, more enveloping.
Interestingly, Cave and Ellis move beyond the expected instruments of piano and violin on a few tracks. They experiment with a Hohner guitaret, an instrument I’d never even heard of before this album, on “Cowgirl” and “Carnival”. It works beautifully with the strings and keeps the album from feeling overly traditional.
Despite his increasing involvement in movies, I don’t expect Nick Cave will turn to film scoring full-time, at least not any time soon. He is far too prolific and creative an artist to be satisfied with just one creative outlet. The score for The Assassination of Jesse James is indeed a rather lovely thing. I imagine it would be the perfect accompaniment to a road trip across the Badlands. But even more exciting than the album itself is the anticipation of how Cave and Ellis will incorporate what they’ve learned on this project into future albums with the Bad Seeds.