In 1997 Nick Cave released an album called "The Boatman's Call," completing one of the most dramatic and unlikely transformations in popular music, from dangerously out-of-control frontman of the visceral, confrontational and frighteningly loud Australian post-punk band the Birthday Party, to contemplative balladeer and master writer of love songs; from Goth hero, heroin junkie, and icon of excess and violence to a man who had secured his place among the greatest and most respected of living songwriters.
"The Boatman's Call" was not just a triumphant aesthetic arrival; it was also a great record: 12 songs focused starkly on Cave's clumsy baritone and simple piano playing, chronicling a romantic relationship, from tenderness to pain to bitter anger (the record is rumored to be based on Cave's relationship and breakup with PJ Harvey). "The Boatman's Call" belongs with Dylan's "Blood on the Tracks" and Lyle Lovett's "Road to Ensenada" on any list of great breakup records. As a display of rock songwriting, it has few peers.
It was also the kind of landmark record that can be very difficult to follow. Cave and his band, the Bad Seeds, released their next studio album in 2001, "No More Shall We Part," a dense, intricately complicated record that had a few brilliant moments, but for the most part felt overworked, overthought, and stale. Last year came "Nocturama," a sloppy, indifferently written record that replaced overthinking with thoughtlessness and was easily the worst that Cave had ever made. It began to look as though "The Boatman's Call" might have marked not only the highpoint of Cave's career but also the beginning of its rapid decline.
Earlier this year, I met with Cave as he prepared to release his two-CD record set -- "Abattoir Blues" and "The Lyre of Orpheus." He spoke at length about the progression from "The Boatman's Call" to the present, and while he didn't, in so many words, say that his last two records were bad, his tone -- and his inability to even remember one of the titles -- made it clear that his esteem for them may be as limited as mine.
"'Boatman's Call' is a hugely important record. The two records after that are living very much under its shadow," Cave said. "'Nocturama' was a record that was supposed to be made quickly in every possible way. Write the lyrics fast, write the music fast, record it quickly. Everything was done in a casual way -- the cover, even the title. And that was because we felt a need to get away from the solemnity of, [pause] that record before that."
You mean "No More Shall We Part?" I asked. He nodded, dismissively. "Everything we do seems to come from a need to remedy certain things that happened on the last record."
The remedy appears to have worked: His new records renders absurd any worries I had about Cave's career. It's not only his best record since "The Boatman's Call" but might be one of the best of his career. And when I told Cave that, he seemed both grateful and vindicated: "Really? I think so too. Thank you for confirming my suspicions!"
Somehow, Cave found a way to revitalize a band that had become almost a hindrance to his development as a writer. Although "The Boatman's Call" was technically a Bad Seeds record, with every member of the band making appearances, at heart it was solo piano and voice with minor adornments. For the two records following it, the Bad Seeds were floating and directionless, searching for a new identity as a band. The music on both had the stale, lifeless air of compromise, the band clearly chafing against the constraints of Cave's increasingly intimate, piano-centric writing. The few loud rockers on "Nocturama" were bones tossed to a pack of Rottweilers kept tethered all day and ordered not to bark.
With the new records, a new band identity has been found. The Bad Seeds sound fleeter, more flexible, less blockishly, Teutonically powerful than they used to be. While, like the Bad Seeds of old, they take some inspiration from industrial and punk, just as much of the band's sound is now drawn from big, glossy '70s rock (the downside of this is when they make use of a horrible group of singers called the London Gospel Choir, who make some songs sound like rejects from "Jesus Christ Superstar"). And violinist Warren Ellis, of the Dirty Three, whose prominence in the Bad Seeds is steadily increasing, brings to this record a new harmonic palette, taking more from Celtic folk music and less from the blues.
In their current incarnation, the Bad Seeds are, frankly, far less thrilling, and less unusual, than they used to be. But they are also a far more sensitive, versatile backing band, able to gracefully enfold and support the increasingly complex writing of their frontman.
The single most significant event in the Bad Seeds' recent evolution was unquestionably the departure last year of Blixa Bargeld, one of the few members who had been there since the beginning. Bargeld was the wildest, the most talented of the bunch, and also the most dedicated to pure, anarchic noise, the most incompatible with Cave's new, kindler, gentler aesthetic.
"He was such a significant presence in my adult life," Cave told me. "That he's not around, there's just a big hole there. At the same time, we were moving towards something that was less ironic in nature, and he was very much about playing the guitar in a non-guitar way. You know, that I have this sort of foreign instrument in my hands, and I'll make the best of it that I can. Whereas, if, in a way, Warren has replaced Blixa to a degree, and filled that hole, Warren doesn't play music in that way. He plays it in the opposite way, without any irony, and with a real love of rock 'n' roll and noise." For any longtime fan of Cave's work, Bargeld's departure was a shock and a tragedy. But perhaps it was necessary for the continued evolution of the band.
Regardless of the musical pleasures and distractions of "Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus," it is Cave's lyrics, and the masterful way that he delivers them, that make it a great record. His lyrical themes and obsessions here are what they've always been: morality and mortality, religion and violence, love. But there's a new energy, a new density, to the actual substance of his words, and a magnetic power to his delivery that more than makes up for the relative tameness of the Bad Seeds and the occasionally horrible production decisions. I'm not sure that I've ever heard a record (excepting, perhaps, certain Leonard Cohen releases) on which the music itself feels so insignificant, so towered over by the power and depth of the poetry.
On "The Boatman's Call" Cave wrote with solemn, determinedly unadorned simplicity. Here, the words tumble out, as stonily inflexible as ever, with the familiar biblical cadence, but newly complex and alive, full of poetic flourish. Listen to the urgency of these first two verses from "Get Ready for Love":
Well, most of all nothing much ever really happens
And God rides high up in the ordinary sky
Until we find ourselves at our most distracted
And the miracle that was promised creeps quietly by...
The mighty wave their hankies from their high-windowed palace
Sending grief and joy down in supportable doses
And we search high and low without mercy or malice
While the gate to the Kingdom swings shut and closes.
Or the more restrained poetry of the opening of "Cannibal's Hymn":
You have a heart and I have a key
Lie back and let me unlock you
Those heathens you hang with down by the sea
All they want to do is defrock you
I know a river where we can dream
It will swell up, burst its banks, babe, and rock you.
Throughout the 17 songs of "Abattoir Blues/ The Lyre of Orpheus" Cave's poetic voice is unmistakable: weightily rooted in the King James Bible, full of imagery of the American South drawn from both old blues lyrics and Southern writers like Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor, and increasingly informed by modernist poetry (W.H. Auden is a particular favorite). "I try to write in a very deliberate way, with a lot of thought to the way the lines are constructed ... and in an almost outmoded language," Cave said. "That doesn't really happen in rock 'n' roll music, and it shouldn't happen in rock 'n' roll music, but it does in my rock 'n' roll music."
And he takes his influences very seriously. He's bothered by the inferiority of the New Standard Edition of the Bible to the King James ("It has things like 'she was hemorrhaging blood' instead of 'an issue of blood.' Ugh!"), and finds today's South lacking behind the romanticized version in literature: "I drove to New Iberia not long ago, because I was driving around the South with my wife. And that wonderful crime writer, James Lee Burke, sets his novels in New Iberia, and the way he describes this place it sounds like the most beautiful place on earth ... This was just Burger King and McDonald's and the rest of it. There was some Spanish moss and some purple sunsets, I suppose, but all seen through the golden arches."
Cave's lyrics often have an apocalyptic bent to them, and this record continues to hammer away on that theme -- only this time, the rest of the world seems to have caught up with him. Without Cave having changed much thematically, this record feels as if it's addressing the state of the world more directly than any of his past work. I asked him about the repeated mention of the "moral code disappearing." He replied: "I think anyone who looks around the world must feel that. And it disturbs me. There just seems to be less and less respect for the world. I guess I'm writing about that a lot." Cave seemed loath to talk politics, but not for lack of opinions. When I asked him what his thoughts were on the current U.S. administration, he answered bleakly, "Ugly. Wrong. There's two thoughts about it."
One of the most intriguing aspects of Cave's lyric writing is his use of Christian imagery. Modern pop rock songwriting is full of it, but it is usually used for its aesthetic, rather than religious, potency. Cave's use of Christian imagery is different in that he is a believer.
This would be clear, I think, to anyone who has followed his career, or paid close attention to his lyrics, but it was made more explicit in 1998, when Cave released a recording of two lectures. The first, "The Secret Life of the Love Song," is a discussion of the art of writing love songs, and it revolves around Cave's belief that "any true love song is a song to God." The second, "The Flesh Made Word," includes the extraordinary and revealing insight that Cave's progressive aesthetic mellowing is due to a change in his focus from the Old to the New Testament. Cave told me that he does not go to church, and that he is not affiliated with any particular branch of Christianity, but there is no question that his God is a Christian God. When I asked Cave if he had any interest in other religions, or in a broader, non-religious spirituality, he replied, "Oh, a passing, skeptical kind of interest. I'm a hammer-and-nails kind of guy."
Rock 'n' roll, which so prides itself on being anti-establishment, and Christianity, the ultimate establishment, make uncomfortable bedfellows -- is there genre of music more reliably atrocious than Christian rock? Dylan went electric and his fans revolted. Dylan went born again and they were so stunned and horrified that they went into denial and pretended he didn't exist -- at least until he distanced himself from Christianity a decade later. But with Dylan, there's always the niggling, in this case welcome, suspicion that he doesn't really mean it, that he's just toying with the world, having some fun, being cryptically ironic. With Cave, that interpretation does not work. He is a deeply, unsettlingly sincere artist. Fans and music critics alike seem to have settled on a policy of just ignoring Cave's religion.
Not that Cave's religion is preachy, or boring, or sanctimonious. In fact, it can often be downright frightening. Whatever he says about being only interested in the New Testament these days, Cave's writing about religion -- both in his songs and in his 1989 novel, "And the Ass Saw the Angel" -- retains a kind of Old Testament rage and sense of violence. This new record is peppered with lines like "The sky is on fire, the dead are heaped across the land," and references to "a war coming from above." When I mentioned that to Cave, he pointed out that "the New Testament is by no means anodyne." But Cave's entry point into Christianity was his fascination with the angry God of the Old Testament, and however many love songs he writes, there is still an undercurrent of violence and brutality in his work -- this is, after all, the man who just 10 years ago released an album consisting entirely of murder ballads, and whose most famous song, "The Mercy Seat," is from the perspective of someone who is about to be executed on the electric chair. If I'd had a little more courage, I might have asked him if he was, as William Blake famously said of Milton, "A true poet and of the Devil's party without knowing it."
Cave seemed a bit surprised, and not entirely comfortable, that I wanted to talk to him about his religious beliefs. "I'm often happy not to talk about it. It sometimes seems inappropriate. Very often I have to defend my viewpoint. And I've sort of given up defending."
I asked him if he was surprised that his religious beliefs were so rarely mentioned in articles about him. "I know that the editors talk to the journalists before they go and say, 'Don't get him going on about God,'" he said. "The concept of God in America is very different than it is in England. Because we see the horrendous outcome of religion as being an American thing, in which the name of God has been hijacked by a gang of psychopaths and bullies and homophobes, and the name of God has been used for their own twisted agendas. So that if you mention God, or a belief in God, in England, it's almost automatically associated with that kind of thinking. Religion's gotten a really bad name."
Over the last few years, Cave has written a number of love songs in which it is ambiguous whether the figure being addressed is a woman, or God, where there appears to be a deliberate conflation of earthly and divine love. On "No More Shall We Part," the song "Love Letter," among the most memorable he has written, seems like a classic love song until near the end, when he sings:
Rain your kisses down upon me
Rain your kisses down in storms
And for all who'll come before me
In your slowly fading forms.
"Breathless," from "The Lyre of Orpheus," is ambiguous throughout:
The red-breasted robin beats his wings
His throat it trembles when his sings
For he is helpless before you
Still your hands, And still your heart
For still your face comes shining through
And all the morning glows anew
Still your mind, Still your soul
For still the fire of love is true
And I am breathless without you.
These songs remind me most of poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins and Emily Dickinson, in which religious ecstasy sometimes sounds decidedly romantic in nature. Cave agreed with me that there was a link to those poets, and pointed out that Van Morrison's "Have I Told You Lately" does something similar. He also told me that there's never any ambiguity in his mind about who is being addressed in his songs -- but declined to be any more specific than that.
Nearly three decades into a career that has seen his transformation from a rebellious preacher of anger into a thoughtful, widely respected intellectual powerhouse, Nick Cave continues to chronicle his potent blend of personal obsessions with a searching depth, profundity, and poetic surefootedness that is rare in popular music, and places him among the truly great songwriters of our time. And, at 47 years old, he may still be getting better.