At 55, the post-punk icon is older and mellower, but his songwriting's stronger than ever. (Even if it's still gloomy as hell.)
NICK CAVE AND THE BAD SEEDS with SHARON VAN ETTEN at Massey Hall (178 Victoria), Saturday (March 23), doors 7 pm. $32.50-$69.50. RTH, TM. 50 VIP CMF wristbands accepted. See listings.
Nick Cave appears in a concert scene about three-quarters into Wings Of Desire, Wim Wenders’s 1987 film about an itinerant angel (Bruno Ganz) aching to be human. After assuming his flesh-and-blood form, Ganz shadows a trapeze artist to a Berlin nightclub where Cave and his Bad Seeds are performing.
Cave’s younger there: gaunt and twiggy yet credibly debonair inside his three-piece suit, hair slicked back into a greasy pompadour.
“One more song and it’s over,” he thinks to himself. “But I’m not going to tell you about a girl, I’m not going to tell you about a girl, I’m not going to tell you about a girl.”
Then with a vanquished, “Wanna tell you about a girl,” he blasts into the aggrieved strains of From Her To Eternity, the title track of the Bad Seeds’ 1984 debut, one of the cruellest and finest songs ever written. Its anguish is exquisite, commanding those coiled knots of pain that snatch the back of the neck.
It’s a song so deeply injured and human that it demands a revision of that cutesy last line of Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life. Every time Nick Cave sings, an angel clips its wings.
It takes a bit of conceptual leapfrogging to reconcile this image of Cave with that of the 55-year-old man squirrelled away at the Vines Resort & Country Club – a sprawling four-star getaway 35 minutes from Perth, offering two golf courses, a tennis academy and something called the Seven Deadly Sins Accommodation Package. Cave calls it a “gulag for golfers.” (He doesn’t play.)
He’s marooned in wine country for two days of down time in the middle of the Australian leg of the tour supporting his latest, Push The Sky Away, the Bad Seeds’ 15th record. Even more than Cave’s acrobatically literate lyrics and the album’s subtle, palpitating atmospherics, what seems to define Push The Sky Away is the absence of original Bad Seed Mick Harvey, who left the group in 2009, walking out on a 36-year creative partnership.
Cave and Harvey met in the early 70s as teens at Caulfield Grammar School in Melbourne, forming snotty garage band the Boys Next Door. Their adolescent angst metastasized into the malignant anger of the Birthday Party, an exceptionally noisy outfit that properly introduced Cave as the poet laureate of post-punk, his howled lyrics suffused with gothic gloom and doom.
The Birthday Party’s breakup and a move to Berlin sowed the Bad Seeds – a supergroup of rotating membership that has attracted wayfarers from Magazine, the Gun Club, Einstürzende Neubauten and the Dirty Three. Even for a band eternally in flux – its music limning the space between garage rock, noise punk, sparse death-cult apocalypticism, Brazilian folk, murder balladry, Greek tragedy and deeply earnest songs of love and love lost – Harvey’s exit feels like a seismic shift.
“Mick Harvey leaving the band had a huge impact,” Cave says, “because there was no guitar. We tried bringing in a guitarist and we listened to him, but we loved this record without the guitar. To me at least, it was a relief to hear the Bad Seeds do something different musically.”
With Harvey’s departure, long-time Bad Seed Warren Ellis received a promotion. It’s a natural transition, growing out of Cave and Ellis’s work on soundtracks for films like The Proposition, The Road and West Of Memphis – basically any movie existentially parched enough to require a score that moves from buzz-saw strings to tinkling, redemptive piano.
Ellis was also an essential component of Grinderman, a swaggering Bad Seeds psyche rock offshoot that marked a return to all the brass and scorn stuff of the Birthday Party and early Bad Seeds, coming off as something between high-minded in-joke and mid-life crisis. (Their best-known single, No Pussy Blues, had Cave growling about not getting any, like a boozy Bukowski stand-in.) Push The Sky Away is a much more sober, serious record, and one that brings Ellis’s carefully textured instrumentation to the fore.
“It’s been very collaborative between me and Warren,” Cave explains. “Warren gets a songwriting credit for everything. It can be difficult to know who wrote what, if you know what I mean.”
This heady, pseudo-psychic relationship has its aesthetic dimension, too. Onstage, Cave’s more debonair than ever – his penchant for fine tailored menswear only refined as he prowls into his 50s – while Ellis, scraggly beard skimming the strings of a violin (or viola, or tenor guitar) plays the hirsute shaman, the perfect foil to Cave’s dapper polish. The Cave/Ellis rapport feels almost biological, something the two have unknowingly been working toward their whole careers.
If there’s a more profound influence on Cave’s songwriting than his Bad Seeds, it’s his muse.
He’s talked at length of that struggle with inspiration that defines the practice of serious songwriting. He’s spoken of the Spanish concept of duende – a torturing spirit that connects the songwriter with those blackened, closed-off quarters of the soul. Now – older, mellower – Cave’s inspiration takes a more unassuming form.
“My muse is my wife,” he says. “It’s not some vague thing that flutters around the astrosphere or wherever it is. Sometimes as a songwriter you need something to hang a song on, to give it some kind of presence and form. For me, Susie is that.”
Cave married British model Susie Bick in 1999, and they live with their twin sons in the English seaside resort town of Brighton. To hear Cave describe it, theirs is a happy, loving, productive relationship, albeit one that grants him the artistic licence to “take every sacred moment between a husband and wife and grind it up in the mill of my imagination and spit it out in the form of songs.”
And so the trickiness of reconciling these split images of Nick Cave returns. How can Cave sing about stuff like agony and pain and heartache without its seeming like a put-on? Fifteen Bad Seeds records in, what is the source of his darkness, his duende?
“Maybe we write about what we need rather than what we have,” he offers. “When I write, it’s not a kind of diary or a mood barometer of how I’m feeling at that particular time. My feelings, and what’s going on around me, have very little to do with the songwriting itself. What I’m writing about is an alternative world – a world I’ve been constructing for years, really.”
As charted on Push The Sky Away, Cave’s world remains bleak, not so far from the dim of a Berlin basement club. On the record’s penultimate track, Higgs Boson Blues, he uses the discovery of the titular elemental particle as an analogy for the absence of God. We Real Cool dwells on a similar theme, the draining of mystery from the universe resulting from the explosion of facts, asking, “Who measured the distance from the planets right down to your big blue spinning world?” and claiming that “Wikipedia is heaven.” Album opener We No Who U R affirms the ambivalence of nature, where “the tree don’t care what the little bird sings.”
Yet slivers of hope pierce the congregating clouds. Hope’s there in the rapturous climax of Jubilee Street – a song Cave was so enamoured of that he wrote another song about writing it, something he confesses is “an arch moment on the record.” And it’s there in the title track’s final shove against the gloomy prophecy of Higgs Boson Blues: “Keep on pushing it, push the sky away.”
Nick Cave is decades on from squealing about bats and garbage in the Birthday Party, agonizing about a girl in From Her To Eternity or pining for ex-girlfriend PJ Harvey’s milk-white throat in Black Hair.
Cave’s ripening into mid-life, and he’s moved away from the exaggerated pomp and swagger of Grinderman toward honest maturity. His anguish no longer resides in airy-fairy things like attitude or the battle with some imagined muse. It abides in the songwriting itself.
Over nearly 40 years, Cave’s played the junkie poet, the melancholy crooner and love song balladeer, the icon of angsty teens and sad bastards everywhere, the snarling elder badass. But for all the varied trappings he’s worn over the years, “songwriter” seems the snuggest fit – though he swears he struggles with it every day.
“The great difficulty of songwriting” Cave says, “is starting the fucking song. That’s where all the anxiety comes from for me.”
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