Foreword: I was very excited and anxious to meet fascinatingly gloom-obsessed artist, Nick Cave, in ’04. He had been leader of radical post-punk denizens, the Birthday Party, in the ‘80s, receiving further critical acclaim fronting the Bad Seeds thereafter. With his son playing compute games in an adjoining room, Cave and I had a demure conversation. It was a low key and quaintly informative session. After this interview, Cave gained wider audience acceptance under the guise of Grinderman, whose eponymous ’07 album was almost as tremendous as the Bad Seeds ’08 triumphant Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!
I’m sitting with Nick Cave at his exquisite 57th floor suite atop Ground Zero’s haughty Millenium Hotel in Manhattan as every wacky means of conveyance crosses by the half-curtained windows. There’s a blimp, private airplane, and glider hanging above the Hudson River, which is filled with a wandering tugboat, lumbering barge, and silver ship. Under the faded gray sky, these aircraft and vessels are nearly as striking, though not as barren, as Cave’s stark murder ballads, bleak tone poems, and vertiginous allegorical fugues.
An Australian rhapsodist living in England since the mid-‘80s, Cave gained underground fame leading Melbourne’s much-admired Birthday Party. He then went solo, fronting the more gloomily dour Bad Seeds, a talented troupe of post-punk liaisons including ex-Magazine bassist Barry Adamson, Einsterzende Neubauten guitarist Blixa Bargeld, and Birthday Party refuge Mick Harvey on drums (subsequently converting to keyboards-guitar). Although personnel has shifted and changed over the course of two decades (the addition of Dirty Three violinist Warren Ellis being exceptional), Cave’s seedlings have grown in directions far and wide, beyond the mortality tales and morbid witching hour blues imbibing his spiritual rouse.
To mark 2004, Cave simultaneously dropped two stunningly inventive works, the uplifting Gospel-drenched orchestral meditation, Abattoir Blues, and its astoundingly diversified counterpart, The Lyre Of Orpheus.
Still consumed with the death marches and doom-y fixations of yore but increasingly in touch with his inner feelings, Cave wanders into the apocalyptic abyss with epic grandeur. However, being a father (son Luke accompanies him for this Big Apple trip – which includes a solo piano stint on Letterman crooning majestic emblem “The Mercy Seat”) has likely given the stately troubadour unduly resolve and better introspective awareness.
Looking dapper wearing white dress shirt and brown trousers, the black-haired, sullen-faced Cave projects a demurely conservative image his English-teaching father and librarian mother might endorse.
Though a regal poignancy underscores Abattoir Blues, its moribund titular snicker proves Cave hasn’t lost his wry sense of humor. But he seems strangely surprised when I plead ignorance to the descriptive French appellation.
“An abattoir is an animal slaughterhouse,” Cave informs. “Oh no. Yankees won’t know that? There goes my chance to break in America again. They’ll go, ‘what’s this? I don’t understand the title.’”
Baring his charcoal-stained soul on the divine salutation “Get Ready For Love” and harrowing “Hiding All Away,” Cave’s darkly hued evangelical elegies match revelatory religiosity with secular lovelorn eloquence. Singing soulfully like guru David Bowie circa Young Americans, Cave despairingly moans through confessional threnody “There She Goes, My Beautiful World.” But it’s the anesthetized dirge, “Messiah Ward” (‘they keep bringing out the dead now’), that truly consumes this maddeningly haunted minstrel.
“For Abattoir Blues, I got a Gospel choir in during rehearsals. They’re a fundamental part of the record. We didn’t hire an arranger to get some singers to stick on top of what we already did. It’s not that situation,” Cave insists.
Regarding The Lyre Of Orpheus, Cave commingles horror epics, uncommon love-struck serenades, and transcendental mysticism in a thoroughly convincing manner. Reluctantly reminiscent of Tom Waits’ foreboding post-midnight hexing with a snaky Captain Beefheart beat redolent of Cave’s Birthday Party daze, the ominously portentous title track absorbs the nebular omens these prestigious standard-bearers once thrived upon. More caustic may be the seemingly rejoicing “O Children,” a mildly didactic pledge of imminent universal allegiance.
Less serious, yet just as intently meaningful, are nifty South of the Border voodoo quickstep, “Supernaturally,” and sinisterly feverish cash-grubbing “Easy Money,” which finds Cave begging to high heavens for legal tender: ‘rain that ever-loving stuff on me.’ His earthy croaked groan infiltrates the melodramatic piano lullaby, “Babe You Turn Me On” – perhaps his most straight up love song yet.
When I speculate the upbeat flute-laden acoustic swagger of “Breathless” would suit theatrical singer Anthony Newley as well as now-deceased L.A. firebrand Warren Zevon, Cave casually quips, “They can have it.”
As for comparisons to craggy cigarette-and whiskey-soaked baritone Tom Waits (and the strange coincidence that, he too, concurrently released two long-players, ‘02s Blood Money and Alice), Cave notes, “I wouldn’t have that so, but there goes. I like Tom’s later stuff, but I wouldn’t say, lyrically, he’s an influence at all. I see my songwriting coming from the same tradition as his, which is the narrative folk ballad.”
In fact, correlating Cave’s dusky phantasms to ‘60s Beat Generation-informed folklorists Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan could be justified. The obliging Cave grants the latter his due recognition.
“I don’t know anyone who’s not influenced by Dylan or Blues music, whether they know it or not. Anyone who feels they have the right to write lyrics other than ‘yeah baby’ or ‘come over here good looking’ has some debt to Dylan,” Cave maintains. “He was responsible for singer-songwriter-musicians sitting down and writing their own lyrics and (he laughingly gibes) I think he has a lot to answer for.”
Though he admits having an affinity for radical recondite contemporaries The Fall, Pere Ubu, and Public Image Ltd., more significant than these subterranean heroes is cultural icon, Elvis Presley, whose perplexed rockabilly primitivism gets lost beneath Cave’s overwhelming Goth leanings.
“He was hugely influential. Elvis was a great performer and a large figure in my life. I always loved the way he sang – his whole career actually,” Cave infers.
A candid glance at Cave’s back catalog proves meritorious. After ‘84s swamp-rooted bedrock debut, From Her To Eternity, and ‘85s Elvis-obsessed Delta Blues-derived, The Firstborn Is Dead, ‘88s Tender Prey offered his best known composition, the mesmerizing chanted mantra, “The Mercy Seat,” plus cryptic jailhouse clang, “Up Jumped The Devil,” and uncharacteristically, vaulted ‘60s garage-psych Farfisa jingle, “Deanna.” Two years hence, The Good Son retreated into lulling symphonic sedation broken up by emphatic testimonial spiritual, “The Witness Song.” Following overwrought Henry’s Dream, ‘94s ethereal Let Love In re-invigorated this terminally nocturnal jongleur. Using his deepest gruff baritone croon, he dispensed steely-eyed waltz, “Do You Love Me?,” a veritable calling card countered by durably feisty turnabout, “Thirsty Dog.”
“I try to write as simply as I can. That’s what the writing process is about. Going back to these huge fucking songs I keep writing and editing them down, simplifying, and clarifying. On the one hand, I want to be comprehensible in the language I use to understand the narrative makes sense, but at the same time, leaving them ambiguous enough that they allow you to feel like you’d listen to the song again,” he claims.
Drifters, strangers, and vagrants inundate ‘96s prophetic Murder Ballads, a loosely thematic string of forlorn eulogies boasting tremendous uniformity. Aussie pop queen Kylie Minogue tremblingly shutters through “Where The Wild Roses Grow” alongside Cave while bedeviled diva PJ Harvey shares the mike on the traditional “Henry Lee.” Next, wayward seafaring creatures and pirate’s ghosts prowl Cave’s grave melancholic respite, ‘97s serendipitous The Boatman’s Call, appropriately preparing his accolade of grim reapers for ‘01s solemnly ecclesiastic No More Shall We Part, which swells with a pious sincerity the sanctified epiphanies of ‘03s Nocturama confirms.
“There’s always a bit of religion in what I do,” he confides. “I feel it’s my duty to put forth my own personal questioning of the belief in God. It’s an antidote for me against blind, fanatical, brutal, ugly, homophobic, one-eyed views of God being pushed down people’s throats, especially in America. Mine is an open, healthy belief. But it’s not my viewpoint of God to encourage people to blow up buildings or start wars.”
Conceding his immense interest in The Bible, Cave also drew strength from ‘70s glam-rock lynchpins whilst growing up Down Under.
He avows, “I just really like rock and roll. I like the feeling it gave me upstairs in my bedroom singing into a broomstick playing Bowie, T. Rex, and miming to their music. It gave me a feeling beyond anything I’d felt before. It continues to do so.”
Despite crafting bucket loads of staggeringly lonesome arias and ravishingly sonorous incantations, the exalted Cave refuses to revisit past endeavors once the sessions finish.
“I don’t listen to my records afterwards. I know how to play songs off them live, but I can’t remember what certain songs are about,” he concedes. But the scholarly bard suddenly perks up when recollecting cherished literary idols such as Melville, Auden, Nabokov, Thomas Hardy, Dostoyevsky, and Ted Hughes. “They totally affect the writing of the songs, as everything does, including the worst music, because you know you don’t want to do music like that.”
So why’d Cave unload two full-length albums on the public instead of one double-album set in ‘04?
“To make it more manageable for the listener. It’s not the kind of world to dump double LP’s on people anymore. Back in the ‘70s, you could. They still respected musicians enough then to allow them those indulgences. But it’s too much to ask for now. The psychological difference is you only have to play one of these records to get a complete picture. You don’t have to listen to both all the way through to get an understanding of what the whole thing was about.”
Cave will be doing soundtrack work for a musical score he wrote, The Proposition, which begins filming September ’04. His acclaimed novel, And the Ass Saw the Angel, and bit parts in obscure movies such as Johnny Suede (playing an aging albino rock star), Ghosts of the Civil Dead (psychopathic prison inmate), and Wings of Desire, have kept him busy on the side.