I feel a certain sort of pride in knowing that the country I came from produced an artist like Nick Cave. It’s a feeling invariably mixed in with a kind of disappointment towards a lot, though far from all, of the music we’ve produced otherwise, and borderline bewilderment at how a country composed (as Australia is) 95% of quiet rural towns where nothing ever happens and there’s nothing to do produced an artist like this. An artist who somehow drew together like-minded art students like himself to bang out some of the craziest post-punk ever put to record with The Birthday Party; an artist who adapted like a chameleon to the bluesier, folksier talents of Blixa Bargeld, Thomas Wydler and the dearly missed Conway Savage in the 90s to create stunning albums that many justifiably consider his greatest work; an artist who can give us the wounded, desperate baroque love songs of No More Shall We Part in the same decade he hammered out some dirty garage rock with Grinderman and Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!. In short, sometimes I wonder if Nick Cave was a total fluke.
If so, I’m happy to number one of the greatest living songwriters as my country’s lucky dice roll; it’s a distinction I’d award not just for the sheer breadth and consistency of his back catalogue, but because of Cave’s peerless ability to conjure an entire world with his words. Cave’s worlds aren’t a dark mirror reflection of our society or any cliche like that. He’s not interested in absolute morality or convenient lessons. The reality in Cave’s work is just a small step to the left of our own, slightly more grotesque and exaggerated and bloodthirsty, but still close enough that it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference. And a reality is what it is – an entire world inside his lyrics populated with criminals, hucksters, hustlers, grinning men in the corners of bars and literal devils.
We can call upon the author to explain this mess, but the existence of God is dubious at best. Cave can be side-splittingly funny when he’s pondering the existence of a higher power. Take “God is in the House”, its portrait of a small religious town where the narrator gets more and more worked up about the secular world outside – it’s fucking hilarious up until it’s not, as there’s no joke in Cave’s cracked voice at the end, as he wavers out “God is in the house… oh I wish he would come out” with dwindling faith. In this parallel universe of Cave’s, it might be scarier if God does exist, and has left us to such a fucked-up world, than if he doesn’t at all.
In Cave’s world devils roam freely, corrupting and killing and singing murder ballads in the night, leading even his better protagonists down the path of ruin. Or, it could be argued, a devil singular, the capital-D Devil – after all, is the demonic figure who tempts the protagonist of “Up Jumped the Devil” into crime really all that different from “Red Right Hand”’s mysterious schemer? One is horned and cloven-hoofed while the other is dapper, but for all we know it’s the same man in a different disguise. More likely than this, though, is the defining feature of Cave’s early work, as close to an absolute moral as you’re likely to find inside his twisted tales: there’s a bit of devil inside all of us, and you can beat him back or let him out, but we’re all headed for a coffin at the end of the journey. Did I mention this isn’t exactly a starry-eyed tale of optimism?
But then something happened and the real world intruded. The death of Arthur Cave in 2015 was a tragedy that no-one could have foreseen, and I in no way intend to reduce this real-life tragedy into being some turning point in a narrative arc. This is an observation of Nick Cave’s lyrics before and after the death of Arthur, and an interpretation of how it may have transformed the worlds Cave constructs in his songs – nothing more. With that in mind, consider these lines from “Girl in Amber”, one of the songs that was written before Arthur’s death but which feels wrapped in a cloud of thick gloom from the moment you hit play:
“I used to think that when you died, you kind of wandered the world
In a slumber ’til you crumbled, were absorbed into the earth
Well I don’t think that anymore, the phone it rings no more”.
Something’s different, and we might reason why. There’s no wandering of the earth like a restless spirit – in fact there’s no protagonist, no story like those he used to write, at least not beyond “you’re born and you die”. There’s just the here and now. A real-world event of horrific magnitude came in and shattered the worlds Cave had been creating since 1986; he’s spoken since, in the documentary One More Time With Feeling which the below footage is taken from, about losing his faith in narratives and searching for meaning in imagistic, improvised moments of recording instead. This is what truly takes my breath away. With Skeleton Tree and Ghosteen, Nick Cave has rebuilt his worlds, and he’s made them into something far more compassionate, vulnerable and open than ever before.
‘An album of compassion and openness’ certainly isn’t the common narrative around Skeleton Tree, which is regarded as the coldest and most distant Bad Seeds release. Ghosteen, it seems, has been received as a work much more open and generous both musically and lyrically, but there’s a throughline that’s gone underexplored in the discourse about both. Take “I Need You” and “Distant Sky”, the two-part piece which forms the climax of Skeleton Tree. Much has been made of Cave’s decision to give half of “Distant Sky” to another singer, almost entirely a first within the Bad Seeds discography (other examples being Blixa Bargeld’s vocals on “The Weeping Song”, playing the role of a father while Cave plays the son; Conway Savage’s lead on the traditional “The Willow Garden”; and the final refrain of “Hallelujah” performed by Kate & Anna McGarrigle – none of which hold the same emotional weight, or take over the centre of the song so completely, as Else Torp’s vocal on “Distant Sky”).
This is what I mean when I refer to Skeleton Tree as generous. But it’s “I Need You” where Cave lets down the emotional guard that’s been up for the majority of his years making music. The biting wit, the structures taken from blues traditionals and Bob Dylan, the dark humour and the irony, even the elaborate metaphors that adorn otherwise unvarnished songs like “Into My Arms” and “O Children”. Strip all that away and you have one man pleading for love, or compassion, or even just the simple gift of company from the ones he loves. “I Need You”’s arrangement, the xylophone hits like little pieces of glass twinkling and the heavenly backing vocals, is a stroke of genius once you realise the song is as beautiful as it is sad. This song is what really paved the way for Ghosteen‘s open, breathier arrangements.
In an excerpt from the very first issue of The Red Hand Files – an ongoing series where Cave answers questions directly from his fans with no moderation, for those unaware – Cave described using the process of lyric writing to find his way back to a sense of community. “I sat and wrote and wrote, and in doing so I found a way back, or at least a way through the veil of grief, to the other side. I felt very strongly that the communal suffering, and our ability to transcend it, was the thing that held us together. This was not some pessimistic worldview, quite the opposite really. It became clear that as human beings we have enormous capabilities that allow us to rise above our suffering – that we are hardwired for transcendence”, he says, just before including the lyric that would eventually become “Fireflies”.
Whether or not Cave ever settled on his beliefs about God in the past, his created worlds and woeful protagonists were pretty bereft of divine intervention, but even that seems to have changed. “God is a work in progress”, he wrote in another Red Hand File in December 2018; “I find it impossible not to believe, or at the very least not to be engaged in the inquiry of such a thing, which in a way is the same thing. My life is dominated by the notion of God, whether it is His presence or His absence”. Dating back to September 2018, when the Red Hand Files opened, something had begun to change; Cave was rebuilding a world inside his notebooks and songs, but it was one that could reflect the better parts of our nature, without ignoring the darkness and horror he’d always been concerned with.
I don’t mean to paint Ghosteen as some idyllic paradise where nothing is wrong at all – it has its moments of utterly transcendent beauty, perhaps more than any Bad Seeds record, but the darkness is always being held just at bay. But from Cave’s pen the darkness serves to make the light stand out brighter and illuminate the moments of hope, as on the rapturous “Bright Horses”.
“And horses are just horses and their manes aren’t full of fire, the fields are just fields and there ain’t no Lord
And everyone is hidden and everyone is cruel, and there’s no shortage of tyrants and no shortage of fools
And the little white shape dancing at the end of the hall is just a wish that time can’t dissolve at all
[…] Oh, this world is plain to see / It don’t mean we can’t believe in something.”
Burning horses recur across the album, a symbol of biblical significance; so do children climbing into the sun or into the moon, an image that recalls “Distant Sky”’s “soon the children will be rising, this is not for our eyes”. Anyone who can react to such a trauma in such a generous way, by making themselves more open to the world rather than shutting themselves off from it, deserves to be considered one of the best of our living songwriters and artists. It helps, of course, that Cave’s 2010s trilogy deserves all the accolades anyway.
In One More Time With Feeling we see Cave and Warren Ellis, his most indispensable collaborative partner on the last three records, sculpt “Skeleton Tree” out of the thin air, sketching within minutes that indelible melody, the haunting opening images, the tree “pressed against the sky”. The chemistry is utterly genuine and utterly unbelievable. Even the underrated Push the Sky Away, somewhat dwarfed by the narrative which sprung up around the albums following it, is a brilliant and empathetic enough piece of work to be considered their equal. As the end of “Jubilee Street” spins out – in this writer’s estimation maybe the greatest moment in the entire discography, especially in the Sydney Opera House live incarnation, as manic and yet controlled in its own way as “The Mercy Seat” or “Tupelo” as it picks up tempo and juddering electric guitar and rockets towards transcendence – Cave puts aside the surreal Dylanesque narrative of the rest of the song for a simple and beautiful refrain. “I’m transforming, I’m vibrating – look at me now”. If you’re anything like me, you haven’t been able to stop looking since.
Red Hand File Issue #1: https://www.theredhandfiles.com/writing-challenge-skeleton-tree
Red Hand File Issue #11: https://www.theredhandfiles.com/belief-in-a-god-explain-your-faith/