A lot of people have been grateful for whatever green space they have in their neighbourhood this year. Watching my son toddle around in the open air, I’m one of them. Since the first lockdown, he has gone from taking his very first steps across his bedroom to exploring the little crescent-shaped Victorian park around the corner. He does so with a kind of boundless glee that only needs to be reined in when he’s about to trip into a patch of nettles.
A selection of the activities that have kept us busy:
bushwhacking new paths between the holly trees
collecting the most orange of the autumn leaves
chuckling at the giddy dogs (or ‘degs’ as he calls them) chasing each other in ever-increasing circles, or hopelessly pursuing squirrels up cypress trees
Gillian Welch and David Rawlings aren’t known for being especially prolific. I’ve always imagined that their rural American music, with its deceptively simple song structures and transcendental, timeless feel, takes time to perfect. And the precious few albums that have emerged in the past decade or so have indeed been perfect.
That’s why the bounty of Welch/Rawlings releases in 2020 has been such a welcome surprise. With their lives upturned more than most – first by a tornado that hit East Nashville back in March and didn’t spare their recording space, then by the pandemic – the couple initially responded with a covers album, All The Good Times Are Gone, recorded on their couch. But the tornado scared them into releasing some of the old material they’d come so close to losing, and over the autumn they treated us to three volumes of Boots No. 2: The Lost Songs.
Whereas Boots No. 1 was essentially the ‘making of’ Welch’s 1996 debut Revival, with lots of fascinating demo and alternate versions, most of the 48 songs that make up Boots No. 2 haven’t been heard at all before. They date back to a long weekend’s songwriting flurry around 2002, after which they were largely forgotten. A couple (One Little Song and Make Me Down A Pallet On Your Floor) turned up in different forms on Soul Journey. The Dylanesque Picasso has featured regularly in Welch’s live shows over the years. Solomon Burke cut Valley of Tears. And Changing Ground will be remembered by anyone who watched the 2012-2018 country music soap opera Nashville (I did, until the bitter end).
But the majority are new to us, and unlike so many other artists’ vault-clearing exercises, the quality is impeccable. There’s not a single track here that feels throwaway, that you wouldn’t want to return to – even the joke songs have hidden depths. And nothing’s been overthought, because clearly there wasn’t time. The duo’s instinct for precisely when to leave a song alone is too good, anyway.
The songs that stick with me are the concise character studies, a rich seam for Welch as far back as Orphan Girl. It’s astonishing how, in a couple of short verses, she can conjure a believable person with hopes and fears that feel real. She does more on a single lyric sheet than some novels manage in 900 pages. There’s the eccentric Strange Isabella who perplexes everyone with her unseasonal clothing and untied shoes. We meet three lost souls walking the harsh Streets of St. Paul. The protagonist of Rambling Blade is a murderer reflecting on their sinful life and their few virtues as they prepare for the gallows. With haunting lines like ‘Wear my scars/white as lace’, Johnny Cash would have covered it in a heartbeat, and Nick Cave would kill to have written it. Or perhaps I’ve got that the wrong way round.
There’s also a gospel strand – the Bible gets the equivalent of rave Goodreads review in Mighty Good Book (‘Have you ever read it for yourself?’) and You Only Have Your Soul warns of the devil’s temptations, or perhaps the trappings of fame (‘Be careful what you sign on the line’). There’s more supreme country-soul in the likes of Roll On, yet another ready-made standard. And they let their hair down on stuff like the near-gibberish rockabilly come-on Wella Hella and the party-starting Back Turn And Swing.
You’ll have your own favourites as you delve into this stuff, but Boots No. 2 has been hands-down my musical highlight of 2020. So thanks, Gill and Dave, for dusting off your lost songs and sharing them – they’re the gift that keeps giving.
With a toddler around, CBeebies becomes a way of life, and in general it’s fantastic. The schedule is packed with quality kids’ programmes, from Clangers (now narrated by Sir Michael Palin) to Nick Cope’s Popcast(witty, well-crafted songs about unlucky hedgehogs, rusty robots, and rockhopper penguins).
For me, the jewel in the crown is a stop motion New Zealand import: Kiri and Lou. Kiri is a playful, impulsive dinosaur and Lou is her gentle, loyal friend who loves napping and sniffing flowers.
Their prehistoric playground is essentially the New Zealand bush, with its towering trees, tangled vines, and dense ferns seemingly constructed from dozens of layers of paper, and the wonderfully lumpy clay characters animated on top.
Each episode is a simple 5-minute story, and often involves our heroes meeting and befriending another creature, or resolving some tiny disagreement. They also all feature a fun musical number by Harry Sinclair and Don McGlashan, intricately arranged and seamlessly blended into the jungle soundscape. Those songs have withstood many repeat viewings, many hours rattling around our brains, and many kitchen table performances!
In Spring, Nick Cave should have been embarking on his European tour with the Bad Seeds. Frenzied fans from Antwerp to Zurich should have been screaming the words of ‘The Mercy Seat’ back at him, touching the hem of his Gucci suit, and hearing just how the extraordinary, ethereal Ghosteen was going to work live. We’ll have to wait a while for all that.
Instead, Nick launched Bad Seed TeeVee, a 24/7 YouTube channel that rotates a generous selection of music videos, interview clips, outtakes from films, ferocious live performances, and other odds and ends from the Cave archive.
I’ve dipped into this channel many, many times since April. In the early weeks of its existence, fans in different timezones were swapping notes on how long they reckoned the loop of footage to be. Some of us were setting our alarm clocks for the next chance to catch an engrossing, previously unseen 40-minute jam from the Skeleton Treesessions, ‘Life Per Se’. Since then, the channel has evolved, and kept on surprising. There have even been weekends devoted to fan-made music videos and fan cover versions. On 26th November, Nick will be joined by ex-Bad Seeds Mick Harvey and Blixa Bargeld for a Murder Ballads listen-along commentary.
Beyond the non-stop delights of Bad Seed TeeVee, back in July Nick beamed a solo piano performance entitled Idiot Prayer into our homes. Recorded in an eerily empty Alexandra Palace, it was a gig like no other – song after beautiful song plucked from his back catalogue, punctuated only by the shuffle of Nick’s lyric sheets and the clink of his gold rings on the ebony of a gorgeous Fazioli grand. The whole thing is soon to be released as a double live album.
Nick has also continued to field questions on his agony uncle blog, The Red Hand Files. The answers are often hilarious – I loved the string of posts about his attempts to secure a piano like the extremely expensive one he used in Idiot Prayer. Just as often, they have humbly suggested ways we might cope with these turbulent times.
Nick Cave’s work has long thrilled and inspired me – I’ll sometimes just watch the final monologue from 20,000 Days On Earth when I need to borrow a jolt of creative energy. I needed as much of that as I could get in 2020, so I appreciate how Nick’s managed to find these new ways to connect with us throughout this difficult year, across the void.
I can’t wait to see him live again, someday, and thank him in person.