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.
By Nick Groom
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.