Born in Australia in 1957 but more recently a resident of London, England, Nick Cave has for many years written emotive songs about life, love and death.
Early works, first with The Birthday Party and later with current band The Bad Seeds, were angry, vitriolic lambasts kicking out at anything that happened to enrage Cave, which in those days seemed to be practically everything. However, these songs were still presented in an extremely lyrical and intellectual manner and this is possibly what gave them their power and charm.
'The Mercy Seat' from the Tender Prey album is a fine example of this period in Cave's writing. It is presented as a first person account of a murderer dying on an electric chair. The best version can be heard on the Live Seeds album. As performed live, the song starts slowly with a few simple piano chords. As the current is cranked up, it builds to an apocalyptic crescendo and the protagonist, who regards himself as 'nearly wholly innocent', turns to religion as salvation for the crimes that it is implied a malevolent God suggested he perpetrate in the first place. The comparison between this violent death on a wooden chair and Jesus' peaceful occupation as a carpenter is a particularly moving juxtaposition, bringing into focus man's ability to corrupt and defile the most beautiful things - a common theme in Cave's work.
Murder, he Wrote
Cave's last album to deal almost exclusively with violence and death was 1996's Murder Ballads from which the two beautiful duets 'Henry Lee' and 'Where the Wild Roses Grow' were performed with PJ Harvey and Kylie Minogue respectively. These two songs were Cave's most commercial success to date, even picking up airplay on MTV1. The selection of fellow antipodean Kylie to play the part of Elisa Day in 'Where the Wild Roses Grow' might seem an odd one. However, the singer is required to play the part of a beautiful, innocent woman of almost child-like naivety and Kylie excels in such a role. Testament to the sway that Cave holds in the music community is that he managed to get Kylie to be 'murdered in song' by singing the lines: '...the last thing I heard was a muttered word as he stood smiling above me with a rock in his fist.'
The Secret Life of the Love Song
The two most recent Nick Cave albums, The Boatman's Call and No More Shall We Part, have focused more on the love song, but that is not to say they are happy, cheery works. In his recent lecture The Secret Life of the Love Song, Cave suggests that a love song can 'never be happy' as it must always 'embrace the potential for pain'. He states that 'the Love Song is the sound of our endeavours to be God-like' and that sound is 'the noise of sorrow itself'.
The Boatman's Call, the most personal album Cave has ever written, certainly has plenty of sorrow in its 12 musically sparse tracks. The melancholy practically drips from the CD as it is placed in the player, but it's not at all depressing. Today Cave shares along with emotional 'stablemates' such as Leonard Cohen, the ability to bare the very darkest recesses of his soul and yet to still make it an uplifting experience for the listener. Tracks such as '(Are You) The One that I've Been Looking For', 'Green Eyes' and 'West Country Girl' chart the freshly discovered waters of Cave's failed romances2.
The newest album No More Shall We Part begins in much the same vein - with the simple guitar and piano of the first single 'As I Sat Sadly By Her Side' - but soon becomes more musically complex. It uses folk singer sisters Kate and Anna McGarrigle to great effect, especially during the beautiful end section of 'Hallelujia'. The album even ventures back to angrier times with songs such as 'Oh My Lord'. This song really sees the Bad Seeds let rip once more while Cave has a go at the detractors who claim that he's gone a bit 'soft' of late. The album also features gems such as 'God is in the House', a wonderful sideswipe at the sterility of small town life that takes matters to ridiculous but logical conclusions with lyrics such as: '...we have a tiny little force but we need them of course for the kittens in the trees...' and '...we've bred all our kittens white so you can see them in the night...'
This sort of ridiculous lyric is not unusual in Cave's work and especially not on this particular album. It's the lyrical cartwheels he turns with his oh-so-easy mix of sublime, mundane, ridiculous, dramatic, tragic and comic imagery that makes his music so moving.
Nick Cave has produced 11 studio albums during his time with the Bad Seeds and has written one novel, And the Ass Saw the Angel. A complete collection of his lyrics from 1978 to 2001 has just been published. More information is available at www.nickcave.net.