Ahead of the artist’s headline slot at the All Together Now Festival, hark at his powerful new album and how it fits into his extensive CV
A few years ago, Emma McEvoy at the University of Westminster wrote a controversial scholarly paper ‘The Sad Demise of Nick Cave’. In it, she wrote that the man who once came across like a post-punk Lord Byron on heroin, Cave’s drug of choice in the 1980s, had “fallen prey to sincerity.”
I can only hope she doesn’t listen to his new mini album Seven Psalms, seven spoken-word pieces of one to two minutes each about God and faith, love and death, mercy and grief.
What stops Seven Psalms from going over the precipice into being a Cliff Richard record are the eerie, electronic dreamscapes laced with reverb worthy of Brian Eno or John Cale, courtesy of his long-term collaborator Warren Ellis.
This is not the fire and brimstone (and near-parodic) southern Gothic preacher we heard in the earlier days of Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds.
Here he is reciting religious lines that would not be out of place on Bob Dylan’s born-again Christian albums – 1979’s Slow Train Coming, 1980’s Saved and 1981’s Shot of Love – or indeed at mass on Sunday in a church.
“I have nowhere left to go but to you, Lord/Breathless, but to you” or “I have stood at the threshold of your wonder/Bid me enter, Lord, allow me to unfold.”
The stand-out ‘Such Things Should Never Happen’ is an ode of sorrow and surrender, with Cave saying: “Beside a little box a mother cries, the swallow seeks to build its nest anew.”
It is hard not to hear Cave sing these words without thinking of his two sons – 15-year-old Arthur, who fell from a seaside cliff in July 2015; then in May of this year, his eldest son, Jethro Lazenby, who died tragically at the age of 30.
Faith has been part of his music, and him, from the beginning…
Born on September 22, 1957 in Australia, Nick Cave was raised Anglican. Between the age of eight and 12, he sang twice a week in the choir at Wangaratta Cathedral in a rural part of Victoria.
But he was not your standard choir boy. He was frequently in trouble with the authority; teachers at school and the police. Indeed when his father was tragically killed in a car crash when he was 19, Nick’s mother had to go to the local police station, where her son was being held on a charge of burglary, to tell him the bad news.
The loss of his father “blasted a great gaping hole out of my world” he later said. He filled the abyss by writing mostly angry, post-punk songs inspired by the blood-soaked stories of the Old Testament about a vengeful, whacked-out God.
The New Testament didn’t do it for him. The Christ in that Bible he remembered from his choirboy days as being a “wet, all-loving, etiolated individual that the church proselytised. I recall thinking what a wishy-washy affair the whole thing was. The Anglican Church was the decaf of worship and Jesus was their Lord.”
On The Birthday Party’s 1982 track ‘Big Jesus Trash Can’, he compared Jesus to Elvis. The 1985 single ‘Tupelo’, by his new band Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, was full of gloomy biblical imagery of “black rain come down”.
Damnation and salvation were always big Cave themes. His 1988 song ‘The Mercy Seat’ was about a murderer on death row, who sees the electric chair in which he will be executed as his salvation. He likens it to the throne of God on the Ark in in the Book of Exodus.
Cave wrote the song while in the grip of heroin addiction. According to Cave’s sound engineer Tony Cohen (from Ian Johnston‘s book Bad Seed: The Biography of Nick Cave), the recording was especially fraught: “Sessions had been starting six hours late as Nick and I were so sick because we hadn’t scored yet.”
Arrested for possession of heroin, Cave started a two-month detox programme at Broadway Lodge Clinic in England. Free of smack, he wrote his 1989 novel And The Ass Saw The Angel about unhinged outcast Euchrid Eucrow. He asks the angel in the swamp: “Is it you? Is it you, come to carry me through the gates?”
On the title track of his album from 1990 The Good Son, he sings vividly of the prodigal son’s brother “beneath a malign star by which he’s kept”. There’s also the “mad old buzzard, the Reverend” in 1992’s ‘Papa Won’t Leave You, Henry’.
Two years later, on 1994’s Let Love In album, he sings in ‘Do You Love Me?’ of a woman with “God and all his devils inside her”, and of his funeral (‘Lay Me Low’), where his teachers will “say I was one of God’s sorrier creatures”. On that same album is the classic song ‘Red Right Hand’ – referring to God’s bloody hand of vengeance. It’s a song that will be familiar to fans of TV show Peaky Blinders, as it is the opening theme song to the crime drama starring Cillian Murphy.
Cave’s album of 1997, The Boatman’s Call, was almost pure theology – with ‘Brompton Oratory’ referencing the Passion narrative in Luke 24, while ‘Into My Arms’ features Cave at the piano singing his most famous lyric: “I don’t believe in an interventionist God.”
In November 1997 he sang ‘Into My Arms’ at the funeral mass for his friend Michael Hutchence at St Andrew’s Anglican Cathedral, Sydney. And in 1998 he delivered a lecture on ‘The Secret Life of the Love Song’ for the Vienna Poetry Festival. In it he said: “I found that through the use of language I was writing God into existence.”
That same year he also wrote an introduction to a newly published Gospel According to Mark (Bono wrote the introduction to the Psalms in the same series published by Canongate). At one point, Cave discusses discovering the New Testament and the effect it had on him: “You mellow out. Buds of compassion push through the cracks in the black and bitter soil. Your rage ceases to need a name.”
He released Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! in 2008, a concept album based on the Biblical figure raised from the dead by Jesus, according to the Gospel according to John. “Does Jesus only love a man who loses?” Cave asks on ‘Hold On To Yourself’.
In his 2009 novel The Death Of Bunny Munro, Libby, Bunny’s wife, is written as a death angel. To Bunny Junior, their 10-year-old son, his mother is, writes Cave, “a slowly dissolving ghost-lady, as incomplete as a hologram. He feels, in this instance, forever suspended on the swing, high in the air, never to descend, beyond human touch and consequence, motherless...”
In 2010 he told Jarvis Cocker on his BBC radio show that he believes in God “in spite of religion, not because of it.” The Guardian once called him “Ted Bundy with a William Blake obsession”. Be that as it may, Blake is as obvious an influence on Cave as the Bible. In the 2014 documentary 20,000 Days on Earth, viewers can see a collection of Blake’s poetry out on a desk in Cave’s Brighton office.
In the summer of 2015, he was halfway through writing The Bad Seeds’ Skeleton Tree album when his teenage son Arthur fell to his death from Brighton’s Ovingdean Gap. ‘Jesus Alone’, the opening track on the album, was a meditation on mortality and suffering, with Cave singing: “With my voice. I am calling you.” Ghosteen, his album from 2019, was as just as mournful.
Live, he is one of the greatest performers in the business. After the near-Biblical suffering he has endured, God only knows what Nick Cave will do onstage in Waterford at the end of the month.
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds headline All Together Now at Curraghmore House, Co Waterford, July 29-31. Other acts include Underworld, Groove Armada, Pillow Queens, Denise Chaila, Gemma Dunleavy, The Altered Hours, Loah and Self Esteem