But I have something that the universe has not. Never has had. And will never have. Consciousness. My consciousness exists only at this given time. It has no past and no future. But its present is bigger in magnitude than all the trillion stars and planets and galaxies.
Nick Cave, One More Time With Feeling
It must be more than thirty years ago that my interest in Nick Cave was first piqued by a music press article in which the author contrasted the Australian singer-songwriter with U2’s Bono. The latter was a Christian who seemed fascinated by darkness, while the other was the Lord of Darkness who seemed forever fascinated by the Bible and Jesus.
At one time I would have sat firmly in the Bono camp, a conservative Christian intrigued by how dark the world can be. Over time I realised I was probably always much closer to Nick Cave. The past decade proved to me beyond any doubt that I have never been comfortable being counted among the redeemed, while at the same time my fascination for the story of a redemptive moment in history that was witnessed and written down by people just like Nick Cave has also increased.
Like Bowie, Nick Cave is a writer, poet and songsmith whose work is psalmic, prophetic, and universal. It gives expression to deep and usually inaccessible feelings of human pain and anguish, terror and wonder. His songs, particularly the narratives of his earlier work, dwell predominantly in the darker regions of human psyche and experience, but also capture moments of glorious beauty and love and kindness. His work traverses the full spectrum of human doubt and faith, hatred and love, murder and forgiveness. He, like Bowie, is a gift to our age.
His 2012 album, Push the Sky Away, was one of my favourite of the past decade, and his follow-up, Skeleton Tree, was due to be an intensification of that album’s musical and lyrical themes. And then Cave’s 15-year-old son, Arthur, died after falling off cliffs at Brighton, in the UK, where the family lives. Needless to say, the dark lord’s life got a whole lot darker, in a way no parent would even want to contemplate, let alone endure.
The Skeleton Tree album, and the accompanying film that was released to theatres in 2016, One More Time With Feeling, document that whole period. Like the seams of redaction that are evident throughout the Old Testament scriptures that Caves loves to quote in his songs, the album of eight tracks represents ideas and thoughts that were forming before the tragedy, as well as songs composed in the period of mourning afterwards. In the film, Cave describes even the songs that were birthed before Arthur’s accident as being almost prophetic (though later on he dismisses the profundity of this idea). The fact is, there’s not a song on the album that doesn’t resonate with tragedy, even those that are clearly not about the loss of a child.
Skeleton Tree is compelling and uneasy listening. I return to it often, especially on vinyl, which brings out its rich and honest complexities. References to the tragedy are opaque, and it’s tempting to over-interpret the lyrics as direct echoes of the trauma Cave and wife Susie and son Earl (Arthur’s twin) must have felt at the time. In One More Time With Feeling, Cave insists the presence of Arthur is more obtuse than that. In fact, he points out that following a tragedy of such magnitude, it’s impossible to be creative. Creativity requires space; the imagination needs room to explore. But Arthur’s death squeezed the oxygen from the room and constricted the creative space. Cave goes ever further, describing how the trauma resulted in unexpected changes in how he sees the world, how he anticipates his own reaction to things, and how he no longer understood knowledge in the same way:
“Most of us don’t want to change. What we do want is sort of modifications on the original model. We keep on being ourselves, but hopefully better versions of ourselves. But what happens when an event occurs that is so catastrophic that we just change from one day to the next? We change from the known person to an unknown person, so that when you look at yourself in the mirror, do you recognize the person that you were, but the person inside the skin is a different person? So that when you go outside, the world its the same, but now you are a different person, and you have to re-negotiate your position in the world. For instance, when you go into a shop to get cigarettes, because this new version of yourself smokes, and the shop owner says, ‘How are you?’ And you don’t know how to answer. Or when you meet a friend on the street who says some kindness, and suddenly you are crying their arms for ages, and then you realize that person is not a friend at all, but someone else that you don’t actually know very well. Or you go into a bakery to buy a loaf of bread, say, and you’re standing in the queue, and someone grabs you by the arm says something with their kind eyes, but you can’t work out what they’ve said because the new you can’t hear very well. And so you say, ‘What?’ but too loudly, and angrily and he says, ‘We are all with you, man,’ and you look around and all the bakery is looking at you with kind eyes. And you think that people are really nice. But when did you become an object of pity?”
The film, like the album, is essential. Superbly shot and edited in 3D monochrome, it’s stark, emotional, beautiful and intimate. We’re drawn into the most intense conversations about grief and loss, conversations even the participants acknowledge are unusual and uncomfortable. It’s extraordinary that Cave and his family granted such access to the filmmakers, but I guess that says everything about Cave. Has he ever kept anything off-limits? The result is a powerful reminder of the value of life, of love, of those closest to you and the absolute need never to take their presence for granted. It’s also a reminder of the power of music to give our pain expression, how psalmic words and melodies, once unearthed, can be offered to the Divine as communal pleas for … what? Peace? Hope?
Cave is 61 years old. It’s worth noting that while he continues to explore the deeper recesses of his psyche to understand the darkness of the human story just that little bit more, contemporaries like Bono have given up that pursuit. It’s been a long time since the prophetic Bono gave us a lyric that made us question our presuppositions. That’s what sets Cave apart. Like Bowie, you can’t imagine that while he has the room to imagine, Cave will ever stop searching for new words and melodies and stories to shine a light on the darker places in which most of us dwell, whether we like to acknowledge it or not.