There's a perception in this great land of ours that masterful singer-songwriter Nick Cave makes depressing music. But, as Cave points out, this opinion isn't universally held.
"It's always Americans who say that," he allows. He chuckles before adding, "The French never do."
Is this an example of what cultural historians may one day refer to as the Jerry Lewis Effect? Not quite -- but Cave, an Australian living in England, and Lewis, as red, white and blue a goofball as we've got, have more in common than just the undying respect and adoration of Francophiles everywhere. For instance, both sport a sense of humor that can blacken in an instant. But whereas Lewis's material conceals its twisted nature within a cloak of mirth, Cave's songs regularly reverse the formula, burying the laughter beneath an outwardly serious, occasionally fierce surface. Most U.S. critics interpreted Murder Ballads, a 1996 disc made with his band, the Bad Seeds, as aural Grand Guignol of an especially solemn sort. In Cave's view, though, the album "is quite comic. I've never had so much fun making a record, because we never really took it seriously. It was such a dumb idea to begin with. Clearly, I'd been writing murder ballads for years, so for me to turn around and do a whole album of them was sort of perverse right from the outset. And because of that, it was incredibly enjoyable to do."
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Since then, however, Cave has cut back on the elaborate artifice that marks Ballads and its many predecessors in favor of something unexpected: self-revelation. Indeed, The Boatman's Call, from 1998, is a thinly veiled recounting of the end of Cave's relationships with his wife, Viviane Carneiro, and vocalist PJ Harvey. "Black Hair," replete with couplets such as "All my tears cried against her milk-white throat/Hidden behind the curtain of her beautiful black hair," is almost painfully intimate thanks to the unanticipated tenderness of Cave's trademark baritone.
No More Shall We Part, due for release in April on Mute Records, a subsidiary of Reprise, continues in this exceedingly rich vein. Cave, supplemented by the current version of the Bad Seeds (Mick Harvey, Blixa Bargeld, Thomas Wydler, Martyn Casey, Conway Savage, Jim Sclavunos and Warren Ellis), surveys the terrain between romance at its most idealized and the furthest extremes of heartbreak with, alternately, a poet's eye and a masochist's touch. Witness the shift in mood from "Love Letter," a gorgeous act of paper-and-pen desperation in which the narrator begs the missive to do his bidding ("Go get her, go get her," he urges it), to "The Sorrowful Wife," which begins with an almost clinical look at a woman whose passions have shriveled in the dry wind of disappointment and ends with a tormented Cave bellowing that he's been a blind fool.
These seemingly discordant emotions are bound together with the help of a sweeping musical tapestry dominated by keyboards, strings, the lovely background vocals of guest stars Kate and Anna McGarrigle, and probably the best singing of Cave's career. About this last achievement, Cave says, "I think the way the album was recorded had a lot to do with that. For all the songs on the record, I was just sitting there playing the piano and singing at the same time, and the band was playing with me. This meant simply that I couldn't concentrate as much on the singing as I have in the past -- so the singing's much more natural, it's lighter, it's less mannered. There's just less thought in it, and that allows the words to kind of live and speak for themselves."
And speak they do, frequently via recurring lyrical imagery that causes the songs to bounce off one another, their meanings intensifying as a result. Better still, Cave consistently embraces contradictions rather than attempting to erase them. "Darker With the Day," the CD's final track, is riddled with bitterly droll remarks ("I thought of my friends who had died of exposure/And I thought about the ones who had died from the lack of it") and madman-on-the-corner ranting (Cave catalogues a parade of "amateurs, dilettantes, hacks, cowboys [and] clones" before noting, "The streets grow with Little Caesars, Napoleons and cunts"). But at regular intervals, he drops the attitude to gently croon the most sincere of choruses: "It seems so long since you've been gone..."
No More revolves around the oppositional themes of "safety and threat," Cave says. "There seems to be a kind of fear of the corrosiveness of the outside world going on with this record, but there seem to be some very safe havens as well, like the home and the workplace." And the ambiguities don't stop there.
"To me, it's important that a song has within it a lot of conflicting things," Cave continues, "and I think music is very special in the sense that there can be a lot going on in a song. There's the voice and the tone of voice, the music, the lyrics, and so on -- and they all have an emotional language of their own that is often separate, giving songs the power of putting across all sorts of feelings at one time. The other arts don't really have that quality, or they don't have it in the same way. And I value that, because for me the songs I write that last -- that last for a long time -- are the ones that have this kind of depth. For example, the love songs that have at their core an ache. I like that element about what I do."
Hailing from the Australian community of Warracknabeal, several hours' drive from Melbourne, Cave grew up with a love of twisted words, and no wonder: When he was fifteen, his dad, a teacher, reportedly read him Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, a pedophilic road story that many parents wouldn't want anywhere near their child's bookshelf. But he was also drawn to music -- particularly tough, brooding stuff of the sort made by Johnny Cash, whose recent cover of the Cave epic "Mercy Seat" is far and away the highlight of Cash's latest platter, Solitary Man.
"Johnny Cash has been a hero of mine all my life," reveals Cave, who's in his mid-forties, "so I was completely moved not only by his version of 'Mercy Seat,' which I think is extraordinary, but just that he did it. When I was nine years old or something like that, I'd sit with my mother and father and watch The Johnny Cash Show on TV in Australia. He would always start off with his back to you, and then he would swing around and say, 'Hi. I'm Johnny Cash' -- and then off he'd go. And I remember thinking, 'Fuck, that is so cool. That is really bad.' That was one of the first times I really began to notice the potential of rock and roll, and where it could take you and what it could do."
He began to find out for himself after being shipped off to a Melbourne boarding school following a series of incidents that brought him uncomfortable attention from the local authorities. There he met multi-instrumentalist Harvey, and with cohorts Tracy Pew, Rowland S. Howard and Phil Calvert, they founded a band they dubbed, with maximum irony, The Boys Next Door. The group put out a pair of recordings, Door Door and Hee Haw, in 1979, and earned a rep for danger and unpredictability mostly because of Cave, who was known to drop his clothes at a moment's notice. Melbourne club owners weren't amused, and after enough of them banned the Boys from their venues, Cave and company decamped for England, whose punk movement had so heavily influenced them. Before long, they switched to a more erudite moniker, emerging as the Birthday Party, named for a Harold Pinter play about a man pushed to the brink of sanity by two ominous strangers who ultimately take him away.
This appellation was an appropriate one, since the band and Pinter shared a similar fondness for absurdity, obscurity and narratives in which evil lurks in the most unexpected places. But whereas Pinter's writing tends to be clipped and spare, the Birthday Party's efforts were lurid, florid and blood-spattered. The well-chosen compilation Hits, issued by the 4AD imprint in 1992, ably illustrates this attribute; it's filled to bursting with marvelously excessive period pieces culled largely from albums such as 1981's Prayers on Fire and 1982's Junkyard. Near the top of the highlights list are the bleak, unrestrained "The Friend Catcher," in which Cave sounds like a particularly hysterical David Byrne; the pachyderm-paced "Zoo Music Girl"; "Release the Bats," which is introduced by shrieks of "Bite! Bite!"; and "Deep in the Woods," a nasty tale of homicide ("Last night she kissed me/But then death was upon her") that proved to be a sonic harbinger of future mayhem.
During this era, Cave was just as unhinged as the material he sang, his destructive behavior fueled in part by alcoholic tendencies and a raging heroin habit that would last a decade. (Legend has it that he once shot up on a London train, then removed the needle from his arm and wrote a letter in his own hemoglobin.) No band could survive for long under these circumstances, and the Birthday Party didn't, fracturing for good in 1983. But Cave rebounded quickly, starting up another combo with a theater-derived handle: the Bad Seeds, named for a twice-filmed Maxwell Anderson play about an angelic-looking but deadly preteen girl. Assisted by Harvey, guitarist Bargeld (a veteran of noise pioneers Einstürzende Neubauten) and a rotating cast of helpers that for a time featured onetime Magazine member Barry Adamson, Cave and the Bad Seeds went on to assemble a string of increasingly memorable albums, 1988's Tender Prey, 1990's The Good Son and 1994's Let Love In among them.
Along the way, Cave emerged as a unique interpreter of popular tunes, rendering Elvis Presley's "In the Ghetto" on 1984's From Her to Eternity and cramming 1986's Kicking Against the Pricks, an all-covers album, with brilliantly conceived reworkings of John Lee Hooker's "I'm Gonna Kill That Woman," Roy Orbison's "Running Scared" and, of all things, Jimmy Webb's "By the Time I Get to Phoenix." But even more impressive were musical inventions of his own such as "Tupelo" and "The Carny," which have a width and breadth generally associated with mediums more expansive than popular music.
"I love to tell stories, and I love to read stories, and I love to listen to stories," he says. "I always have, since I was a child, really, and I very much like the idea of taking a couple of characters and having them write the song for me, take me where they want to go, or, alternately, starting up a song with a line like 'I thought I'd take a walk today,' and then just allowing it to unfold."
Given his willingness to experiment with different methodologies, it's no wonder Cave eventually branched out into other mediums, playing himself in German director Wim Wenders's visionary 1988 film Wings of Desire (and also appearing in Johnny Suede, a Brad Pitt curio from 1991), producing a well-received, and suitably depraved, novel, 1989's And the Ass Saw the Angel, and assembling two volumes of poetry and lyrics called King Ink, after a song dating back to the Birthday Party era. He also wrote the screenplay for the 1988 Australian film Ghosts...of the Civil Dead, which he describes as "quite a nasty prison movie." (Cave acted in the flick and co-composed its score as well.) More recently, John Hillcoat, Civil Dead's director, asked the singer to scratch out a new script for him, and Cave happily did so, completing the secretive project -- "I've been asked not to talk about it," he says -- earlier this year. For him, the satisfactions involved in cinema work are very different from those he experiences in connection with music.
"The screenplays and those sorts of things feel to me much more like a craft: I can sit down at a blank page and just start writing it, because I have my idea in mind," he says. "But the songs come from a different part of me, and the process I find much more mysterious. I feel I have much less control over the way they turn out. They often form from a single line knocking on another line, and the song develops from what may initially appear to be just worthless piles of words. When you put a few chords behind them and sing them, they suddenly take shape and start to grow, which I find to be very magical and very beautiful.
"I feel I'm not the ultimate authority on my songs," he continues. "I often hear people talk about my songs, and they do it much more intelligently and lucidly than I could. They seem to have a much better understanding of them than I have. I'm not really sure why that is. But I'm often surprised and moved by what people get from them."
Nonetheless, Cave recognizes that he has certain obsessions to which he returns over and over again, and Christianity is a favorite. Virtually every Bad Seeds CD touches upon this topic in one way or another, and No More Shall We Part is hardly an exception; its roster includes the titles "Hallelujah" and "Oh My Lord," and allusions to the Almighty pepper tracks such as "Gates to the Garden" and "Fifteen Feet of Pure White Snow," arguably the disc's catchiest, most gripping number. And that's not to mention "God Is in the House," in which Cave portrays a true believer who uses his faith as a dam to hold back the worldly sin that might otherwise engulf him: "Moral sneaks in the White House/Computer geeks in the schoolhouse/Drug freaks in the crack house/We don't have that stuff here."
This whack at morally superior Bible Belters is less subtle than most other songs on No More, as Cave concedes with a modicum of discomfort. "There is a satirical element to it, and satire is not a form of songwriting that I'm completely comfortable with, actually," he says. "I almost left it off the record and almost didn't play it to the band because of that reason. But the band seemed to think it was funny, and it got a few laughs, which is enough of a reason to put a song on a record for me. It always has been." But he believes the tune also contains "a genuine cry of despair about what often feels like the detachedness of God and God's ineffectiveness.
"I've read the Bible a lot over the years, right through from my early twenties, and I know it pretty well. But I don't find that a lot of the religions really have much to do with what the Word actually is. And I despair at that. I think that's very sad."
He experiences the same sensation when he thinks about the stereotyping his work suffers at the hands of many folks on these shores. Cave knows that he's making progress on this front: His U.S. record sales have crept upward at a steady rate, particularly since Murder Ballads, attracting a sizable cult of aficionados with a greater understanding of his approach and providing him with the kind of financial cushion that all too few challenging artists enjoy. Moreover, his stateside popularity may well be enhanced by his current tour, in which he'll be accompanied by Jim White and Warren Ellis, two-thirds of the Dirty Three, and Susan Stenger, formerly with the Band of Susans. Even then, however, his audience is apt to remain too modest to interest most execs at his label -- and that's just the way he likes it.
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"The most valuable things for me are freedom, that I'm able to make whatever kind of music I like, and that I don't have a business apparatus breathing down my neck," he says. "And I'm really happy that isn't the case. There just isn't that vast an amount of money in what I do, so I'm left free to do what I want. I couldn't bear it if I was selling so many records that there were suddenly people interfering."
Still, some frustrations remain. "When I do interviews in America, 90 percent of the time I'm having to justify that there's an element of sorrow in my work. 'Why is it there?' they ask. I often feel like a little kid who's done a picture and brought it around and someone said, 'Why the hell did you paint the house black?' And that does get me quite upset, actually.
"I would hate to think that my records were considered depressing," he says, "because they are to me spiritual works in the sense that they have certainly lifted my spirits in the writing of them. That's why I do this -- because the writing of the songs makes me feel better and makes me better equipped to deal with the world. And I hope that has some kind of knock-on effect to the listener. I truly hope it does."