Saturday, 27 March 2010

Visceral Hymnody: Nick Cave

Today I celebrated a wedding (a convalidation, if you want to be canonically accurate) and a baptism. It was a grace filled occasion. At the end, the couple presented me with a gift and encouraged me to open it there and then. I could tell by its shape and weight it was a book of some sort. As I tore off the tissue paper, I could see it was Nick Cave Stories. I flicked open the hard cover and inside were the words "To Father Martin love Nick Cave". In our preparations, the couple spotted Nick Cave books on my study shelves and I had owned up to being a fan. For me, Nick Cave is rock music's equivalent of Flannery O'Connor. He possesses something of that same fearless perspective on all that is dreadful and grace-ful in human lives. Combine this with his theological intelligence and his observations sing with a unique clarity. Anyway, it just so happened this couple knew someone who worked for Nick Cave's record label, Mute...and hence the present. So, sincerest thanks to Cate and Martin. And this blog post is a thank you to Mr Cave for taking the time to make a Catholic priest smile.

Mortality, religion and atrophying love are the staple ingredients in the work of the Australian musician, Nick Cave, and his band, the Bad Seeds. These ideas, combined with Cave’s tormented, street preacher persona, have led some critics to label his music as “modern Gothic”. However, such a glib description ignores the complex theological interests in Cave’s music. At his best, Cave articulates the contemporary dilemma of believing in an age of pandemic indifference. “I’m a believer,” he admits, “I don’t go to church. I don’t belong to any particular religion, but I do believe in God. I couldn’t write what I write about and be creative without a certain form of belief.”

As a boy, Cave sang in the choir of the Episcopalian Cathedral of Wangaraata in Victoria. Cave’s secular hymns are rooted in his religious upbringing. The Wesleyan craftsmanship of Cave’s lyrics and his use of choral layering provide a distinctive resonance to his music. In the Foreward to Nick Cave Stories, James fox writes:

Cave had the luck to have a thorough education in the Bible and in sacred music through intense church attendance, which provided him with the richest mythology in the culture. The Psalms were his inspiration, and much else of the brutal prose of the Old Testament. "The Psalms are soaked in saudade (inexplicable longing and yearning of the soul), drenched in duende and bathed in bloody-minded violence," Cave wrote some time ago. It's a good description of the collected lyrics of Nick Cave and of his love songs. "What is required of love songs is that they unveil the face of God," he says. "I believe the love song to be a sad song. It is the noise of sorrow itself. The love song is the light of God, deep down, blasting through our wounds."

In 1978, when Cave was just twenty one, his father was killed in a car accident. In his radio essay, The Flesh made Word, Cave interprets this tragic event in religious terms, stating that “like Christ, I too come in the name of my father, to keep God alive.“ By immersing himself in the Christian narrative, Cave’s music becomes a sacred rage against the absurdity of death and loss.

In his early twenties, Cave became fixated with the God of the Old Testament, “the maniacal, punitive God, that dealt out to His long-suffering humanity punishments that had me drop-jawed in disbelief.” It was also this God that gave Cave the self-belief to “walk out on stage and open my mouth and let the curse of God roar through me.“ Old Testament references litter Cave’s work. In The Mercy Seat from the 1998 album, Tender Prey, Cave imagines someone about to be executed in the electric chair through allusions to Jewish blood rituals and moral codes of retaliation:

And the mercy seat is waiting
And I think my head is burning
And in a way I’m yearning
To be done with all this measuring of truth.
An eye for an eye
A tooth for a tooth
And anyway I told the truth
And I’m not afraid to die.

Later in his life, an Anglican vicar introduced Cave to the Gospel of Mark. The stereotypical Christ, “that wet, all-loving, etiolated individual that the church proselytised,” was replaced by the Christ that spoke to Cave “through His isolation, through the burden of death, through His rage at the mundane, through His sorrow.” It’s common for rock musicians to talk about Christ with smirking irony or as a publicity stunt. Cave, on the other hand, is serious about the Christian faith, describing himself as “a hammer-and-nails kind of guy.” However heterodox some of his views, what one senses and admires in Cave is his unflinching engagement with the divine mystery. “I don’t believe in an interventionist God” may be the credal statement of the song, Into my arms, but his oeuvre contradicts this.

With the formation of the Bad Seeds in 1984, Cave found musical collaborators with which to develop his autobiographical and theological preoccupations. This happened in unexpected ways. In the love song, Brompton Oratory from The Boatman’s Call of 1996, Cave enters the Knightsbridge church during the celebration of Mass. His religious thoughts fuse with the memory of a failed love affair, “the blood imparted in little sips/ The smell of you still on my hands/ As I bring the cup up to my lips.” It is not God or the devil that has brought him to his knees, but his lover’s absence. He invokes “a beauty impossible to define/ A beauty impossible to believe/ A beauty impossible to endure” but it is unclear whether this refers to God or his lover. Like some urban John Donne, Cave effortlessly combines religion and sexuality. “Any true love song is a song to God,” he admits in his lecture, The Secret Life of the Love Song, “The love song exists to fill, with language, the silence between ourselves and God.”

Cave rejects the church because it has emasculated Christ. He writes, “The Christ that the Church offers us, the bloodless, placid “Saviour” - the man smiling benignly at a group of children, or calmly, serenely hanging from the cross - denies Christ His potent, creative sorrow.” He scorns the timid and anodyne in religion. He wants the full hit of religion, rather than “the decaf of worship.” His music and evangelical performance style are Cave’s attempt to provide in a secular context what he feels is absent in a religious one.

Cave’s fourteenth album with the Bad Seeds, Dig!!! Lazarus, Dig!!! continues the exploration of his main themes. The creative germ for the work comes from his idiosyncratic reading of Christ’s raising of Lazarus. “Ever since I can remember hearing the Lazarus story, when I was a kid, you know, back in church, I was disturbed and worried by it,” confesses Cave, “ We are all, of course, in awe of the greatest of Christ’s miracles - raising a man from the dead - but I couldn’t help but wonder how Lazarus felt about it. As a child it gave me the creeps, to be honest.” Cave’s ambiguous response to the miracle provides the imaginative scaffold for his songs, where Cave describes his lyrics as “a haemorrhaging of words and ideas.”

In the title track, the post-miracle Lazarus becomes a resident of New York where he stockpiles weapons and women and “feasted on their lovely bodies like a lunatic“. But the price Lazarus pays for his new lease of life is the cruel knowledge that it has an expiry date. He will face death again. Over a driving bass-beat, Cave tells us that “he (Lazarus) ended up like so many of them do,/ back on the streets of New York City in a soup queue./ A dope fiend,/ a slave,/ then prison,/ then the madhouse,/ then the grave.” This fantastical re-imagining of the Lazarus story allows Cave to apply his understanding of the mission of Jesus - the liberation of humanity from the prosaic in order for “our imagination to rise and to fly. In short, to be Christ-like.”


  1. I have found Dig Lazarus Dig in my head since you posted this.

  2. This one is almost as good and then again, possibly better than the one on time. The words I like best are actually not yours but other people's. The essay is like a train, bringing me carriages of unusual new ideas. You own the train but the compartments are loaded with new ideas and bring me riches: lovesongs - the noise of sorrow itself/Cave - a hammer and nails kind of guy/his lunatic feasting on the bodies of women he met.

    All these give me a bargain, indeed a free ticket to ride into areas of literature and culture I don't have time to explore. Thanks.