Fancy a spot of spelunking? GARY STEEL reassesses Nick Cave.
The week started like this: playing the great Tom Waits album Swordfishtrombones to a couple (let’s call them Dave and Sally, to protect the good names of the innocent) who had somehow never heard the gruff-voiced troubadour. Its Captain Beefheart-via-Howling Wolf blues tracks meeting with instant approval from Dave, Sally issued forth with a real clanger. “It’s a bit like that Nic Cage guy. He’s dark, really dark.” Gary and Dave had a good laugh over that one, and when the chuckling subsided, we explained the faux pas. “But they’ve got the same face,” countered Sally.
I couldn’t argue that point, because I’ve never done any comparative analysis of the facial characteristics of either Nicholas Cage or Nick Cave, and (shock, horror) haven’t plans to do so any time soon. The contrast between the artistry of Cage and Cave couldn’t be more severe, however. While Cage has frittered his considerable acting talent away on a trail of increasingly risible film roles, jumping from one half-written part to another, seemingly lured exclusively by cash at the expense of artistry, Cave has carved out a character in music which has endured the best part of four decades, never lurching too far off course, and in the process, gathering loyal fans and admirers like barnacles on an old boat.
Still, Sally’s comparison with Tom Waits holds water. Both hide behind invented personas, both dig deep into the culture in a literary rather than strictly poetic fashion, constructing narratives populated by individuals whose stories are used to illuminate those grey areas, and dark edges, around the human condition. Both Waits and Cave are as recognisable as Dylan or Lennon or Bjork, not just for their explicit vocal characteristics but the way they construct their sound art. But where Waits’ thing has always hinged on his boho influences, Cave has stayed true to the gothic minstrelsy he developed soon after leaving The Birthday Party.
It’s true that to really get into either Waits or Cave, you’ve got to buy into the idea. ‘Nick Cave’ is a construct, which means you’ve got to believe in the character. That’s diametrically opposite to the usual, passive idea of a songsmith being authentically themselves, like a Paul Kelly or a Dave Dobbyn. It’s a one-step-removed theatrical device that audiences either love or hate, and ultimately, is the difference between theatre/film and all those confessional, heart-on-sleeve songwriters.
In The Birthday Party, Cave was clearly enthralled by Don Van Vliet/Captain Beefheart, whose invented persona allowed him to construct both a kind of desert ju-ju avant-rock and a post-Howling Wolf vocal style that was a perfect fit for his Dadaist lyrical expression. My problem with Nick Cave was that in the early 1980s, The Birthday Party were one of the 10 greatest bands on the planet, which made it almost impossible for his work with any particular Bad Seeds lineup to match the ragged glory of that extraordinary group.
It’s not for want of trying. I enjoyed the first Nick Cave album, From Her To Eternity, which carried remnants of the explosive firepower of TBP, but thereafter, his infatuation with story-telling in the great American gothic tradition seemed to get the better of the music. Nick Cave as a (more or less) solo artist just lacked the dynamism of a great rock band, and the music became increasingly subservient to the songs and the singing.
But here’s where I have to swallow my pride and admit that my problem with Nick Cave is my problem, not his. Legions of fans around the world enjoy extended narratives in song, just not me. I could never sit through an early, acoustic Dylan song without my attention straying, no matter how great the words were, because there was so little going on musically. Obviously, storytelling in folk song is a long and noble tradition, and stories in song must have been one of the best ways of passing down and extemporising upon both real and imagined events before the majority of the populace was literate. Nick Cave’s early work, I now realise, belongs at least in part to this age-old tradition. Even without examining the prose carefully, it’s clear the debt he owes to sea shanties and the more morbid folk tales that have come down through the centuries, and Cave can be viewed as a living arbiter of these traditions: not as some sad, button-up jersey-wearing, Morris-dancing saddo, but as someone who realises that all traditions need new chapters written for them.
Having sporadically auditioned Nick Cave albums over the years, I’ve erroneously concluded that he was a diminishing force, and while I’ve given the odd Cave recording a glowing review, I’ve never found myself returning to the subject of my approval for my own enjoyment after the fact. And then there was the moment that turned me off entirely: watching Cave at a Leonard Cohen tribute give a pale, wan kind of rendition of the great song-bard’s work. At that moment, Nick Cave seemed to lose his lustre, grow smaller and less significant. This was a long, long way from the towering performance Cave gave at Wellington’s Victoria University in 1983 as his band virtually imploded onstage.
But listening to the new, career-spanning ‘best of’, Lovely Creatures, I suddenly get it. There are essentially two parts to Cave’s solo ouevre: the character actor of his early work, and a transition to a more ‘authentic’ Nick Cave who was less inclined to hide behind a theatrical mask, more inclined to write first person, and even developed something of a reputation for dark balladry. That statement is only partly right, I know, because there’s nothing simple about Cave except for the intentional simplicity of songs like ‘Striaght To You’ and ‘Into My Arms’. Cave never does anything in a straight line, and as recently as 2010 he deviated wildly with the second of two albums of noisy alt-blues rage under the Grinderman alias (not represented on the ‘best-of’).
I still don’t like his more orthodox balladry much, especially when he’s burrowing into the same faux-gospel territory Leonard Cohen ploughed on songs like ‘Hallelujah’. When Cave gets all gospel on us, it comes across as parodic, and slightly cynical.
Listening to the sweep and consistency of his work over the decades since that first album with the Bad Seeds in 1984 though, it’s impossible not to be knocked out by Cave’s perseverence to his art. Perhaps with the support of the Mute label through most of that time, he was able to just get on and do it his way, without the usual economic issues to consider. While Cave’s dulcet tones give each song their indelible stamp, the background provided by the Bad Seeds has continued to evolve, and this decade, the predominant co-conspirator has been former Dirty Three violinist Warren Ellis. The other aspect of Cave’s artistry not represented here is the exceptional film soundtrack work the duo have undertaken, which to this observer, often eclipses their song-based work.
Sonically, some of these 21 songs (over two CDs) are still challenging: brittle guitar and an unconventional un-rock lineup that perfectly matches the bloodied corpses found in the songs. But then there are those exceptions to the rule, like the Kylie Minogue duet on the conventional murder ballad, ‘Where The Wild Roses Grow’. The fact that this post-punk icon’s catalogue would at one time have been lodged firmly in the ‘alternative’ or ‘indie’ section of record shops, but has completely outgrown such categorisation without any kind of compromise, pretty much says it all.
But having renovated my views of Nick Cave and his consistently excellent recordings, will I listen to them for pleasure? Probably more than before, but less than I should. Horses for courses, and all that. Still, I started out skeptical about this new compilation, wondering about the point of a ‘best of’ (surely a little arbitrary) in an age where people can easily make their own playlists online, and have come away with a new appreciation. For many, this summation of Nick Cave’s Mute label years will be enough to wet their whistles. For a few, it may lead on to an exploration of the catalogue.
* Nick Cave – Lovely Creatures: The Best Of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds (Mute/Warner). Available in various formats, including box set with DVD and booklet.