The Dirty Three are an unholy and a holy trinity: Warren Ellis, Mick Turner, Jim White have played together under this name since the mid nineties. Ellis is also a member of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and all three have played with an impressive number of highly respected artists such as PJ Harvey, Cat Power and Bonny Prince Billy. What’s in The Dirty Three’s rather splendid name? Are they a band of outlaws ? Musically, yes. Are they dirty like the Dubliners and the Pogues were dirty? Well, in a way: the Three’s dirt and that of their folk cousins is the dirt of raw emotion, whatever that may be–eighty percent proof, musical poteen. Their dirt is also the dirt of sex. Most music is designed to seduce, to lead up to sex. The Dirty Three, however, create music which is sex itself–sex and the post-coital come-down; abandon and melancholy, orgasm and after.
But what of this ‘after’ state, this melancholy? In actual fact, the Three also give us not just dirt but dust. There is a sense when you listen to an extraordinary album like Cinder that you are hearing a dissolve into death. The melodies (for the most part the band do not use words) hardly seem to be there at all. Their music doesn’t beat you into submission but soaks into you, patterned like ocean currents. As someone who loves singing to herself but who doesn’t perform and who has little or no technical knowledge of music, I can at least get a sense of how daring and experimental, how difficult and extraordinary these melodies are, by trying to sing them. As soon as I think I have understood a tune, I realise it slips away from me. The Dity Three’s music controls you, you do not control it.
And this is where the deity bit comes in–Orpheus to be exact. When you hear Ellis on violin or mandolin you realise the truth of those Greek myths in which Orpheus charms and spellbinds the humans, the plants, the animals into a kind of ecstatic sadness. Sadness (Saudade) here is medicinal. The frenzy of human activity, what Wordsworth called ‘getting and spending,’ is suspended as you listen.
Byron thought of Robert Burns as a rare combination of ‘half dirt, half deity.’ Rare indeed is the ability of musicians to be both of these things at once: outlaw and angel, fugitive and present.