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The Ten Best Nick Cave Lyrics

14 September 2013, 11:56

Leading Cave scholar Nick Groom compiles ten highlights from the frontman's incredible lyrical world to mark 30 years of the Bad Seeds.

September, 1983. With only a month having passed since the mutinies and misdemeanours that soundtracked the broiling burn-out of The Birthday Party, Nick Cave and Mick Harvey had plans. The band they formed 30 years ago this month, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, took their particular brand of gothic darkness to ever gloomier depths, whilst slowly cementing the foundations of one of rock music’s most respected oeuvres. To celebrate this new beginning, and possibly the band’s most defining feature, we asked top Cave scholar, and professor of English at Exeter University, to explore ten moments in the frontman’s lyrical world.

Nick Cave’s writing is utterly singular: a bilious mix of the sacred and the profane fuels his lyrics. Biblical prophecy is mashed up with voodoo, parable and fable clash with lullabies and proverbs, Teutonic folklore hangs out with Americana. His voice is deep with vengeance and violence, the erotic and the eerie. Truth for Nick Cave lies in the physical anatomy of the body, in the taste of blood, in the stupor of seamy sex. His is a world of criminals and victims, flesh and bone, alienation and ecstasy, derangement and death. But death, which haunts his lyrics like a demonic stalker, is not the end. Death is weirdly unreal, supernatural – a rite of passage to another domain, the merest hint that something lies beyond. This elusive sense that there might be more to life than fighting and fucking is Nick Cave’s salvation, if not redemption, and he finds it in love. He is a romantic – dark, apocalyptic, and, like Bunny Monroe, the anti-hero of his latest novel, cunt-struck – but a romantic nonetheless, ready to let love in.

Nick Cave’s writing has grown into an impressive body of work: the edition of his lyrics (1978 to 2007) runs to 450 pages, and he’s written two novels, and several screenplays, and lectures. The lyrics are, in a sense, a single piece of work, with repeated images and obsessions: the palette is stark, the references deep. Of course, separating the words from Nick Cave’s singing and the clinical accompaniment of The Bad Seeds is almost impossible. Cave’s brilliant expressionist delivery is exemplified on ‘From Her to Eternity’. His breathless manner perfectly matches the skeletal piano arrangement, which is unnervingly laced with ersatz machine gun effects, feedback, and crash ’n’ burn distortion.

Where can we situate Nick Cave’s unique voice? Is he a Goth, or a postmodern crooner? ‘Release the Bats’, the Birthday Party’s first single, was (and still is) a Goth anthem, but his work since – notably with The Bad Seeds – is more idiosyncratic. If anything, Nick Cave channels a much more arcane tradition of Gothic symbolism, drawing explicitly and intuitively on Christian eschatology, old ballads, revenge tragedy, and the uncanny, and artfully blending these frames of reference into his surveillance of contemporary society and its concerns – as is strikingly shown on his last album, Push the Sky Away. It is a strange alchemy that has little interest in explaining the world; rather, he seeks to make our experience through life more mysterious, more magical, and much more sinister.

‘Red Right Hand’ – Let Love In (1994)

The words are artfully phrased to create a crazy, conspiratorial black comedy, driven by a pulsing rhythm and a compelling narrative question: just who or what is this creepy bastard? The lyric tempts us with revelation, but discloses no secrets save in the enigmatic refrain of his ‘red right hand’. Here, the ‘red right hand’ embodies the secret life of other people, as imagined by a paranoid sensibility – the man in the black coat is everywhere, a blank signifier on which fears and desires can be projected. Is the hand red with blood, or wearing a cheeky festive mitten? The answer comes in The Bad Seeds’ next album, Murder Ballads. ‘Song of Joy’ recounts the harrowing and senseless killing of a family in the uncomprehending tones of the husband who discovers the atrocity. The murderer, a serial killer, writes ‘Red right hand’ on the walls in his victims’ blood. The phrase is drawn from John Milton’s Biblical epic of the Fall, Paradise Lost. It is the avenging hand of God that incites civil strife: the creation of an anti-Eden.

‘Supernaturally’ - The Lyre of Orpheus (2004)

In contrast to the blood and guts of much of Cave’s previous work, The Lyre of Orpheus offers a set of love songs, by turns mystical and frenzied. ‘Supernaturally’ is propelled by bizarrely stunning images and the remnants of a call-and-refrain blues structure to portray a man’s debate with himself on the irresistible yearning for self-annihilation through love. An army of tanks burst from his lover’s chest: ‘I wave my little white flag at thee’ – the archaic, ironic pronoun ‘thee’ encapsulates this defeat by making the singer history. Her hair cuts like a knife, suggesting that domestic affection has becomes a terrifyingly visceral and dangerous threat – who is prepared to give themselves up to this overwhelmingly love? The answer has already come in ‘I Let Love In’: by letting in love you will lose yourself, deliriously.

‘Babe, I’m on Fire’ - Nocturama (2003)

Fifteen minutes of weirdo-mondo lists: the maniacal clutter of a junkie-poet’s intemperate and lovesick mind. Nursery Gothicism cut with bravura middle-class rap generates an almost endless succession of headlong verses with outrageous rhymes – ‘hernia’ / ‘Guernica’ / ‘furniture’. Cave slyly mocks Goths (his own past), his own band (the present), and adds a daft lustre to love through the lounge-music chorus (the future) – making the whole gumbo a wild celebration of the unstoppable fecundity of life, love, and language, even in the face of death (specifically the threat of HIV). Such impetuous lists are characteristic: in ‘There She Goes, My Beautiful World’, for example, he offers up his personal canon of great artists, writers from the seventeenth-century libertine Rochester to the New York Dolls, from political theorist Karl Marx to the poet Philip Larkin, spiked with similarly audacious and hilarious rhymes – ‘blow it’ / ‘hoe it’ / ‘know it’ / ‘poet’.

‘The Ship Song’ - The Good Son (1990)

After the inferno and ashes of Tender Prey, The Good Son feels like a wake, full of mourning and reconciliation. ‘The Ship Song’ begins with half-clichés of love and regret in a typical Cave tone, mixing the portentous and the colloquial (‘baby’). Verses outline the failure of intellect, reasoning, and rational systems of thought in the abject condition of love, but there are menacing undertones, from the dogs running loose (intimating Shakespeare’s line, ‘Cry “Havoc!” and let slip the dogs of war’) to the plea ‘let your hair hang down’: loose hair signifies wantonness, but is also a sign of lamentation, madness, and savagery. But the most tenderly disturbing verse, again on the restrictive power of love, describes the removal of wings, as if they are being picked from a fly or a fairy – or indeed a bird (i.e. a girl). There is no respite in the commitment to love.

‘Where the Wild Roses Grow’ - Murder Ballads (1996)

Based on an Appalachian murder ballad, ‘Down in the Willow Garden’, itself a traditional Anglo-Irish ballad narrative. The dialogue between the two voices, who each report their experiences from their own perspective, creates the dramatic tension through cryptic questions and comments that seem barely to be understood by the protagonists: “Will you give me your loss and your sorrow?” The unravelling of the plot becomes uncomfortably chilling when it becomes evident that Elisa Day, although forgotten and metamorphosed into the wild rose, can still speak from beyond the grave. The rose is of course an over-determined image – the rose is too obvious a symbol: red and thorny, ‘all bloody and wild’. But cliché or not, roses do grow down by the river, and Cave is refreshing this tired image through a delayed decoding: in other words, the roses are a flash-forward, a hint of the blood to come. It is unclear early in the lyric whether this blood is the result of the loss of virginity, or something more ominous – but at the climax, the daring rhyme of ‘kissed’ with ‘fist’ lays bare the latent violence of love and sex. Despite Kylie Minogue’s affecting innocence in her duet with Nick Cave, I prefer the demo version (B-Sides & Rarities) with the girl’s vocal taken by Blixa Bargeld. It is a reminder that most traditional ballad singers are blind to gender, and that men will sing in a woman’s voice, and vice versa; as such, it has an added poignancy.

‘Tupelo’ - The Firstborn Is Dead (1985)

This is The Bad Seeds’ coming of age, slouching towards Bethlehem – Cave and his three wise guys rejoicing at the birth of rock ’n’ roll. A heady Old Testament prophecy comes to pass in the nativity of Elvis and his still-born twin during a torrential downpour – a repeat of the Biblical Deluge. This is a punk carol, with a pounding rhythm and some great unearthly and colloquial lines – ‘Ya can tell yaself ya dreaming buddy / But no sleep runs this deep’ – and a freakish cast. The farmyard animals are in a panic, the Sandman (the castrating bogeyman of Hoffman and Freud) stalks the lines, the first-born is buried pathetically in a shoe-box tied with a red ribbon, the King is come again.

‘We Real Cool’ - Push The Sky Away (2013)

A heart-rending meditation on memory, the past, and children, the lyric reaches out more widely to wonder whether the child is father to the man, and the mystery of the Trinity: how God the Father comprehends God the Son. Cave contemplates the parent-child relationship (overshadowed by the early death of his own father and his own juvenile delinquency) as if he is talking to a mulish teenager, before he channels the same questions being asked of him by some higher authority – family, or theology, or the power of language. In a bold change of perspective he goes extra-terrestrial, then into the virtual universe of the internet and the infinity of Wikipedia, which like Jorge-Luis Borges’s ‘Library of Babel’ has the potential to contain all knowledge, but in which it is impossible to distinguish truth from illusion. The lyric reaches out: ‘On the far side of the morning’ is a lovely line to describe the fragility of future plans.

‘The Mercy Seat’ - Tender Prey (1988)

A monstrous, copious piece of work that describes a world intensified by the promise of imminent execution and damnation. Like the scene of a crime, everything, no matter how trivial, is pregnant with meaning: the face of Jesus is glimpsed in a bowl of soup – is this divine judgment or salvation? The prisoner’s body has betrayed him: his fingers inscribed with tattooed letters spell out his ultimate fate – like Faustus’s flesh that formed itself into letters to warn against his impending pact with Devil, his hand should have rebelled against evil. The equation of the Cross with the ‘mercy seat’ (the electric chair’) is genuinely disturbing, and becomes the crucible for a contrast of Old and New Testament thinking on divine retribution, freewill, and mercy itself. The condemned man wrestles with language to turn his death into a form of martyrdom, a sacrifice, until at the very last he loses his grip on his words, which twist themselves away from his lies, assert the truth, and confirm his sentence in the final line – language has gained its own momentum to force a confession and justify execution. This verbal slippage infiltrates the seven concluding verses like a gathering nightmare: it is a tour de force of songwriting.

‘Higgs Boson Blues’ - Push the Sky Away (2013)

A lyric that commences with the admission ‘I can’t remember anything at all’ may not sound particularly promising, but in ‘Higgs Boson Blues’ it is the starting point for existential deliberation and the prospect of the ‘God particle’ – the perplexing ambition of the Large Hadron Collider effectively to replace celestial creation with theoretical physics. Cave is in Brighton, or driving in his car to Geneva, or perhaps just thinking. He is living at least half in another, overheated world – catching sight of the blues guitarist Robert Johnson who sold his soul to the Devil at a crossroads, pondering Martin Luther King’s assassination at the Lorraine Hotel – these are hot spots or tipping points of history, when everything shifts. Is there a design? Like a preacher, he then goes among the poor and dispossessed, the underside of history, and subsequently encounters ancient Egypt and early Islam. These wanderings, like those of the Wandering Jew cursed with immortality for striking Christ, offer a snapshot of human attempts to commune with holy and unholy powers, of which the Higgs boson is merely the latest example. But like the Christian missionaries to the New World, salvation comes at a terrible price: of smallpox and influenza, genocide and AIDS. Fears of mortality and of the future pervade the lines, fears that Cave is already dead (‘Can you feel my heart beat?’), fears that the future will evaporate as time dissolves in relativity. Human culture collapses into the idiocy of popular culture, and like an eternal and unrelenting cycle at the very end we return to our beginning: ‘I can’t remember anything at all’.

‘Time Jesum Transeuntum Et Non Revertenum’ - B-Sides & Rarities (released 2005)

Beyond intimations of the spellbinding power of love, the allure of spiritual belief, and the all-too carnal temptations of the Devil there is very little directly supernatural in Cave, but it is here is where the demons dwell. ‘We were called to the forest’, a realm of Faërie – enigmatic and unexplained, but the wind blows ‘eloquent’ and meaning abides throughout this hallucinatory land. We are on occult ground, seeking ‘the secrets of the universe’ from these ‘demons’. Such beings are spirits of place – daemons – figures of inspiration, or rather annihilation, and they predict that there will be no Second Coming: ‘Dread the passage of Jesus for He will not return’. So far, so bad, but then this crooked tale becomes more crooked as it stumbles back into reality. The narrative slips into a modern fairy tale of cars and singing birds, and the message is lost. The twittering of the birds replaces intelligent speech, birdsong and language merge, and meaning disappears. Only a dreamlike memory of the demonic scripture remains – but without the written text the words have no authority and it is impossible to return and retrieve the testimony. This is a distinctly odd parable of the power of the written word, and the intangibility and evanescence of what is only said – or sung. Nevertheless, Nick Cave’s spoken words stay with you.

Professor Nick Groom is Professor in English at the University of Exeter and has written widely on literature, music, and contemporary art. His publications include The Gothic and forthcoming book The Seasons. Nick can be found on Twitter at @Prof_Nick_Groom.

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