With Nick Cave recently returning with a new album and feature-length documentary, I thought it was probably time to tackle him on here. Despite living most of his adult life in Europe, Cave’s roots are firmly set in the eerie isolation and overbearing Catholicism of rural Australia and is without a doubt one of the countries most celebrated and iconic artists.
Nick Cave spearheaded the burgeoning punk and post punk scenes of Melbourne and contributed hugely to the Australian punk aesthetic that still thrives today. It is difficult not to overstate his influence on the psyche and direction of Australian culture.
With the recent deaths of Lou Reed, David Bowie and Prince, the true avant-garde musician certainly feels like something of a dying breed. But they are certainly still around, and for Australia Nick Cave is the case and point. Cave is an artist who has always ventured into unknown territories and entirely transformed himself throughout his career. He is an artist who defies the boundaries of genre and is always unique in everything he does.
From the post punk anarchy of The Boys Next Door and The Birthday Party to the murderous ballads of the early Bad Seeds, right up to his current incarnation as a crooning poet, capable of vast universal abstractions, he has always led and never followed in the pursuit of his own art form.
Although this post is undeniably in reaction to his most recent album Skeleton Tree, I won’t be reviewing it too much. It feels almost impossible to pass judgement on such a delicate and intimate record. Sometimes the purpose of art is not solely to entertain and please the audience but is a means of catharsis for the artist themselves.
It was when I was studying literature at University that I first started to appreciate Nick Cave beyond his musicianship. It seemed that the lyricism was always the starting point and centrepiece of every song. And at the time I held him as some sort of benchmark for my studies. Here was a man that had religiously studied the art of the spoken and written word and had two critically acclaimed novels to his name and was the absolute pinnacle of punk and counter-culture to boot. A humanities students wet dream.
Like Leonard Cohen before him, he was a man who could just as easily have carved himself out a life as literary heavyweight but instead applied his creativity more heavily towards the world of music. He has that rare and venerated ability of a true poet. That ability to look deep into the condition of human existence, to convey meaning that transcends the boundaries and race, religion and nationality. Lyricism that touches on the universality of human elation and suffering and all that lies between.
A combination of this and atmospheric soundscapes and production creates a music that is able to embrace the dark undercurrent that tugs incessantly on all of us under the surface. It reveals elements of the otherwise hidden subconscious, the violence and the anxiety that we battle with and suppress.
But to think of Nick Cave as a purely negative artist is reductionism at its worst, there is a much more expansive nature to his songwriting, particularly on his more recent albums.
On The Boatman’s Call Nick Cave departs from the murderous narratives and array of violent caricatures and offers a more intimate look into his personal relationships. On Push The Sky Away Cave went even further and started to embrace concepts as vast and pertinent as the Higgs Boson and explored the relevance of this scientific breakthrough to our warped and fractured modern lives.
But this most recent album is perhaps the most revealing and heartbreaking of all, as the Cave family come to terms with the tragic loss of their son Arthur. We do have to take care in reading into the album too much, however. Most of the writing was finished prior to the tragedy and in the documentary Cave even addresses the prophetic nature of his music stating that it must “be taken with a pinch of salt”.
Tragedy happens or has the propensity to happen to all of us at any moment and perhaps it just seems more prescient when it befalls an artist who has made a career out of addressing these darker, hidden corners of life.
But there are moments we can’t escape it. The tragedy is infused into the music and even if not directly referenced in his lyrics is felt in the straining of his voice and in the cold, icy resonance of Warren Ellis’s production. Within the albums narrative Cave seems to be surrounded by people offering genuine heartfelt sympathies and trying to continue on yet is forever being tied to this singular, traumatic moment in time. And even if never referenced directly this moment haunts the record and always draws us, as the listener, back towards it.
Nick Cave is probably an easy artist for a lot of people to pass or give up on. He isn’t easy work at all and he’s not supposed to be. If you prefer your music radio friendly and purely as a means of light entertainment or background noise then he’s probably not going to be for you.
But if music is a vital element in your life then you will really want to take that time to listen. Australia isn’t hugely famous for its exports and a lot of its best talent gets swallowed up and never really leaves. But Nick Cave did leave and is one of the greatest songwriters this vast country ever gifted to the world.
If you have the time I would honestly recommend going through his entire discography but if not, here’s a few to get you started at least.
Door Door – The Boys Next Door
The first band Cave released an album with. Deeply rooted in post punk and actually fairly radio friendly compared to a lot of his back catalogue.
Hee Haw – The Birthday Party
For me the pick of the albums he released with Melbourne post punk outfit The Birthday Party. Captures both his roots in the punk aesthetic and his ability of dark, complex lyricism.
Mutiny/The Bad Seed – The Birthday Party
A transition EP of sorts. The last release with The Birthday Party and definitely the beginning of Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds. A shift in narrative towards storytelling and more focus on production and building a sense of atmosphere.
The Firstborn is Dead – Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds
The beginning of the defining sound of The Bad Seeds for many years to come. A sense of the American Gothic and Wild Western lawlessness seeps its way into the makeup.
Kicking Against The Pricks – Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds
An album on which Nick Cave starts to embrace his role as a singer. The music starts to become a platform for his oration and it showcases a much bigger emphasis on his delivery.
Let Love In – Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds
An iconic Cave album and the album that gifted us Cave’s best known song, Red Right Hand. This album exemplifies his penchant for storytelling and creating eerie, atmospheric accompaniment. A signature record with a diversified sound that brings together many elements of his career thus far.
Push The Sky Away – Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
By far my favourite album in Nick Cave’s entire back catalogue. The kind of album that you only get with a 40 year career behind you. Incredible scope, poignant lyricism and impeccable production.