2. The Sexual and Violent Lyrics
The previous chapter has shown a general description of the background of the creation of Nick Cave’s songs. The second section of the thesis will be a more detailed look upon the individual lyrics where the theme of love is linked to such expressions as sexuality, violence, and murder in particular. Presently I will not strictly follow the chronological order. I am going to look for instances of rather physical attraction in Cave’s lyrics during the whole 1980s and 1990s. The chapter is divided into three special units regarding distinctive categories in songs – 1) female clothing, 2) love and murder, and 3) sexuality and darksome love. As a consequence each division of the chapter will deal with particular songs. The last point – sexuality in Nick Cave’s work – comes intentionally as the final crucial theme of the second section because the analysis and the results will than be put in relation to the third part of the thesis which will explore the shift to romantic ballads and spiritual tendencies mainly in the later work.
The female sexuality and fascination for physical love appears already in the earliest songs by Nick Cave. Although the subject of love – sadness, girls, professions of love – in the rock and roll music is often a cliché and has a notion of purposeless contemplation, the songs by Cave have a different concept concerning its subject matter; namely in the artistic principles – Cave considers his music and lyrics unique regarding his own muse which is in no competition with anybody. He stands outside the world of glittering prizes (Nick-cave.com). It has been already mentioned above that his lyrics tend to be read without music – as poetry7. Cave is not a usual singer and musician; he is one of the representatives of poets among them. Moreover Nick Cave tries to tell a story and pursues the songwriters’ tradition of the generation before. The following parts of the second chapter will point up three particular categories in the sexual and violent love songs.
2.2 Female Clothing
The female clothing and the particular colour of woman’s clothes and – principally – dresses is a feature that is to a certain extent repeated in Nick Cave’s lyrics. The significance of the clothing imagery in relation with sexuality is usual in popular music. Some of the early songs by Cave are a perfect example of how the music is linked to a very interesting symbolism of dresses, their red colour, and sexual matters. In Cave’s songs the symbolic red dress is the female sexuality in a wretched state. The colour signals some dark issues – in most cases relates to murder, obsession, self-abasement etc. The singer pays particularly fethishistic tradition to the significance of the red colour (Gladwell 135-7). That assertion leads us to the particular Birthday Party’s songs where the woman’s dress is a central element:
1) “Zoo-Music Girl” and 2) “Kewpie Doll”. The former one’s fethishistic elements are related to the noticeable fact of murder which will be explored later on:
I murder her dress till it hurts
I murder her dress and she loves it
If there is one thing I desire in the world
Is to make love to my Zoo-Music Girl. (Cave 28)
Here the sexual undertone is quite apparent. Cave puts two elements together:
1) making love by murdering her dress – maybe undressing her, 2) murder that hurts but/and feels good (“she loves it”). The sexuality is thus closely related to violence, male power, and fetishism. A similar feature, particularly a fascination of dressing and undressing, is present in “Kewpie Doll”:
Well I love the kewpie doll
Yeah I bought her in a show
I dressed her up in a cheap red cotton dress
But everything was either fished-out or spat-out. (Cave 45)
The doll might symbolize a woman – or a virgin – whose future lies in the man’s hands. The red dress stands here for the sexual attraction and the female sexuality in a wretched state. Cave sees and adores the significance and meaning of the dress, namely the complete and unchaste sexuality (Gladwell 148).
One of Nick Cave’s songs – “From Her to Eternity” – from the same called 1984 Bad Seeds debut album shows a fascination with bare feet. The piece is a chant of a depraved character who longs for a girl who lives in a flat above him, in the “Room 29”. The record became one of Bad Seeds’ first hits. Few years later, in 1988, German director Wim Wenders used the song as one of the central musical constituents of the film Wings of Desire8. The song is above all a tale of emotional voyeurism (Reynolds 29).
Ah wanna tell you bout a girl
You know she lives in Room 29
Why that’s the one right up top a mine
Ah start to cry, ah start to cry-y
O ah hear her walkin
Walkin barefoot cross the floor-boards
All through this lonesome night
And hear her crying too
Hot tears come splashing down
Leaking through the cracks
Down upon my face, ah catch em in my mouth! (Cave 84)
It seems that the character is obsessed by the image of the girl. It is interesting that he can not know for sure that she is barefoot; however, he declares the she has got no shoes on. The sexual undertone of her bare feet is to be associated with nakedness. She becomes the centre of his dreams and the floor is the only thing dividing him from the girl herself. It is by all means a fethishistic attraction again that is present here just as comparably the red dress magnetism discussed above. This desirability for her and the voyeurism are thus cases of depraved sexuality in Nick Cave’s early lyrics. “From Her to Eternity” is a love song (regardless of the unrequitted feelings), just free from any conventional clichés. Hence the role of clothing plays a major part as a feature of sexuality and physical obsession.
2.3 Murder and Love Within
Murder ballads have a special status in Nick Cave’s work. They appear both in the 1980s and in the 1990s. We can trace several patterns in these songs – 1) a murderer kills his beloved woman and – as an outlaw – waits for his punishment; 2) the lover lusts after his female object desperately; nevertheless, he can not reach her – the longing after her is overruled by the desire to take her life; 3) the lover is a violator and the woman is just a defenceless and vulnerable prey. Let us dicover the relation between the lover and the murderer rolled into one – in 1) “The Mercy Seat”, 2) “From Her to Eternity”, and 3) “Where the Wild Roses Grow”. They might be viewed as love records because they explore in their way that line between love, hate, and murder might be very thin.
The feature of a rebel-murderer has been already discussed in the first chapter. Cave works with this popular cultural issue just as Johnny Cash before him for instance9. “The Mercy Seat” was originally released on the Tender Prey album (1988). The record was, as a whole, very well received publicly and by the press; “The Mercy Seat” became one of the classics by Nick Cave10. Besides, the song has been covered years later by Johnny Cash. On the album Cave reflects his own musical vision of the blues and the American South. The Bible’s imagery is still present (Hanson 72). The character is a prisoner who waits in the death row for the execution; his life should end on the “mercy seat”, on the electric chair. His thoughts are full of feelings of guilt and resignation. The prisoner contemplates his sins before the execution. The lyrics have a rich Biblical imagery: e.g. “In Heaven His throne is made of gold / The ark of His testament is stowed” (Cave 136). However in this case the key point lies in the message of love:
My kill-hand is called E. V. I. L.
Wears a wedding band that’s G. O. O. D.
’Tis a long-suffering shackle
Collaring all the rebel blood. (Cave 136)
The whole lyrics are sixteen verses long. Yet these four lines unravel the convict’s crime. The meaning of this fragment is present in the contradiction between good and evil – the same hand that wore the wedding ring also commited the murderous crime. In other words the one who can be devoted to a woman and love her might take her life as well. The wanted man is placed between good and evil and might be viewed from different perspectives. Therefore the line between love and hate – or black or white – is pictured as a very thin one.
Let us get across to another song now. There is a remarkable pattern that I would like to explore in “From Her to Eternity” again, namely a suggestion that longing after a beloved person might be fatal and more important than a requitted love. To love also means to possess in a sense. In particular, a supreme moment of power over somebody is attractive. Death via an amorous murder runs from Marquis de Sade and Romantic poets to lyrics by Iggy Pop and Nick Cave. “From Her to Eternity” is a song of devotion and devastation (Reynolds 31-2).
The character is a peeper who is fascinated by a girl living in a flat above him. Actually the lyrics are a “monologue of a man who, pacing up and down in his apartment, sees in the woman upstairs at number 29 the fulfillment of all his dreams” (Dax 86). He becomes allured by everything she does and tries to get hold of all that is associated with her daily life: “Ah read her diary on her sheets / Scrutinizin evry lil piece of dirt / Tore out a page ‘n’ stufft it inside my shirt” (Cave 84). He is scared of the state she is in and listens to every sob she makes: “But ah can hear the most melancholy sound / Ah ever heard / Walk ‘n’ cry! Kneel ‘n’ cry!” (84-5). All he wants is to own her; nevertheless the desire to have her is stronger than anything else. Therefore he decides to kill her because he is afraid of the possibility of possessing her. That would mean not to crave for her anymore. The only way out is to steal into her apartment and to take the girl’s life eventually:
This desire to possess her is a wound
And it’s naggin at me like a shrew
But ah know that to possess her
Is therefore not to desire her
O, O, O then ya know, that lil girl would just have to go!
Go! Go-o-o! From her to eternity! (85)
The affection of the song’s character for the woman is another instance of depraved emotionality. It is one of the examples of the wicked side of affection in Cave’s lyrics. Love and desire here turn into lust and murder. We can notice as a result that the line between love and hate is in reality – as previously depicted – thin.
Further words will be dedicated to “Where the Wild Roses Grow” from the Murder Ballads, a concept album from 199611. The song contains examples of murder and love within. It became probably the comercially most famous record Nick Cave ever made. The songs share features in common; the release is planned as a whole – the indivudual tracks are about morbidity, murder, and insane killers. Cave planned to make a concept album, not individual hits12. Nevertheless the record became the best sold album of The Bad Seeds. There are two traditionals among others – “Stagger Lee” and “Henry Lee” – and a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Death Is Not the End”. Cave reached the peak of issues of violence and sexuality with this collection; subsequently there occurred a sharp break from the era of sexual and violent matters to the preoccupation with spirituality and pure love on The Boatman’s Call and following albums.
“Where the Wild Roses Grow” is a duet featuring the Australian pop star Kylie Minogue. There are in fact six verses and a chorus which opens the song and is sung by the woman, Elisa Day:
They call me The Wild Rose
But my name is Elisa Day
Why they call me it I do not know
For my name was Elisa Day. (Cave 242)
The chorus is followed by two verses throughout the song, each one sung either by Minogue or Cave on their own. The record portrays three days; it is a story of a young girl who falls in love with a stranger. Every two verses of eight lines altogether represent a day, first sung by Cave, second by Minogue:
From the first day I saw her I knew she was the one
As she stared in my eyes and smiled
For her lips were the colour of the roses
That grew down the river, all bloody and wild
When he knocked on my door and entered the room
My trembling subsided in his sure embrace
He would be my first man, and with a careful hand
He wiped at the tears that ran down my face. (242)
The story follows kind of a “Beauty and the Beast” pattern where the girl is innocent and young and – on the other hand – the man is strange, mysterious, and older than her. She falls in love with him and lets him do anything he wants. On the second day he brings her a rose and tells her to go to the place “where the wild roses grow”. The last day becomes the climax of the song; the man reveals himself as a murderer:
On the third day he took me to the river
He showed me the roses and we kissed
And the last thing I heard was a muttered word
As he stood above me with a rock in his fist
On the last day I took her where the wild roses grow
And she lay on the bank, the wind light as a thief
As I kissed her goodbye, I said, ‘All beauty must die’
And lent down and planted a rose between her teeth. (243)
Cave shows here again the personification of good and evil in one man. Although “The Mercy Seat” and “From Her to Eternity” that have been explored recently are different types of songs (featuring a renegade and a peeper), they both follow a pattern of the thin line between love and fondness on the one hand and sinister emotions on the other.
All of the three instances in this section illustrate the murder theme in love lyrics which has been significant for Nick Cave during the 1980s and 1990s. The author demonstrates the closeness between love and hate and – life and death. The violence in the lyrics is not purpose-built. The author’s notion of desire and affection is simply intimately near danger and destruction. That concept became one of the characteristic signs of his writing. Cave presents passion and desire in a remarkable way, namely in relation with agony, pain, and fury. These shocking features are in a sense central for Cave’s unique work (Gray)13.
2.4 Sexuality and Darksome Love
Sexual attraction and to a certain extent murky side of love lyrics is another category of Cave’s work. We can observe physical magnetism and personification of sexuality and affection on some of the albums by him. I am going to look at three particular songs where the theme of sex is apparent – 1) “Hard on for Love”, 2) “Loverman”, and 3) “I Let Love In”. These records – with issues of sexual attraction – stand on the bridge to the shift to spirituality and rather mental emotionality in his later work of the 1990s.
The first example, “Hard on for Love”14, shows Cave’s ability to picture sexual desire. The song’s character is a sexually disturbed man who feels a great deal of attraction for a female object. The piece contains also features discussed above, i.e. red colour, female clothing, and violence. Nevertheless the sexual craving connects all of them together:
I am the fiend hid in her skirts
And it’s hot as hell in here
Coming at her as I am from above
Hard on for love. Hard on for love. (Cave 127)
The lyrics’ intention goes truly straightforward towards its purpose. Besides Cave uses the Old Testament depiction to draw the image of the woman:
Well I swear I seen that girl before
Like she walked straight outa the book of Leviticus
But they can stone me with stones I don’t care
Just as long as I can get to kiss
Those Gypsy lips! Gypsy lips!
My aim is to hit this Miss. (127)
As a result the Biblical subject matter stays close to sexuality throughout the entire song: “And I’m movin in (I’m moving in) / Comin at her like Lazarus from above” (127) and “I am his sceptre and shaft / And she is Heaven and Hell / At whose gates I ain’t been delivered” (127). The lyrics as a whole treat the woman as an object: “Just when I’m about to get my hands on her / Her breasts rise and fall” (128). Cave delivers these lyrics of lust and desire with an outstanding vigour. Such a diction and tone overpower the later “Loverman” (Hanson 65). Once again the song contains a feature of possessing a woman. Together with the subject of sadistic pleasure is the song comparable with “From Her to Eternity”.
The next record comes from the publicly very well received Let Love In album15 – “Loverman” from 1994. Nick Cave presents once more a dangerous, lustful, and ruthless lover for whom the woman represents just a sexual object and a centre of erotic desire. Besides to correspond with the “fierce” lyrics, the band performs a sound of rock and roll and one of the 1990s’ loudest Bad Seeds songs16. The loverman himself is portrayed as the devil (“There’s a Devil waiting outside your door / He’s weak with evil and broken by the world / He’s shouting your name and asking for more” (Cave 214)) and the song contains issues of sexual yearning regarding the woman as an object:
Take off that dress, I’m coming down
I’m your Loverman
There’s a devil crawling along your floor
With a trembling heart, he’s coming through your door
With his straining sex in his jumping paw
I’ll be your Loverman! I got a masterplan
To take off your dress and be your man. (214-5)
Nevertheless what makes the song attractive is the narrative part between verses. The lyrics “finally reached fruition with the addition of two spoken passages in which Cave would literally spell out the theme of the song” (Johnston 298-9). Yet again the audience can perceive the lusty, sexual subject loom ahead from each line:
L is for LOVE baby
O is for ONLY you that I do
V is for loving VIRTUALLY everything that you are
E is for loving almost EVERYTHING that you do
R is for RAPE me
M is for MURDER me
A is for ANSWERING all of my prayers
N is for KNOWING your Loverman’s going to be
the answer to all of yours. (214)
The lyrics’ central theme lies again in sexuality and seduction and the topics of obsession and violence (rape, murder, forced undressing, straining sex etc.). The meaning of the song derives thus from the physical – sexual – matters. Its directness is very similar to “Hard on for Love”, namely in the bodily attraction. Although they were both written at different times they follow the same pattern of a woman as an object.
“I Let Love In” is in fact almost the title track from the Let Love In album. The song has two main similarities with the ones discussed above in this part of the chapter. Namely
1) its dark feeling associated with love and sexuality and 2) one person as an object of physical interest. There is nevertheless a different view for the reason that the object is not a woman but a man. That does not change its purpose. Cave presents three “siblings”: Love, Despair, and Deception.
Despair and Deception, Love’s ugly little twins
Came a-knocking on my door, I let them in
Darling, you’re the punishment for all my former sins
I let love in
Well, I’ve been bound and gagged and I’ve been terrorized
And I’ve been castrated and I’ve been lobotomized
But never has my tormentor come in such a cunning disguise
I let love in
So if you’re sitting all alone and hear a knocking at your door
And the air is full of promises, well buddy, you’ve been
Far worse to be Love’s lover than the lover that Love has
I let love in. (Cave 221)
Cave’s lyrics show here that one may not be aware of the dangers of love. The metaphorical issue points out that love may have different faces. The character first did not recognize the diverse sides of love which may have a pleasant face and a sinister one. It is probably no surprise that for him the punishment was a physical one, namely regarding the sexual matter – castration, although it is meant metaphorically. The bodily interest remains a key element which is common for the three featured songs. The fact that the object is a man becomes thus the only distinction.
The second chapter was dealing with violence and sexual attraction in Nick Cave’s work. There are two main points that the issues have all in common: 1) depraved emotions of the characters and 2) a thin line between good and evil. Two main stages of Cave’s career stand out regarding both categories: specifically, first prior to The Good Son and second from this album to Murder Ballads. The topics of love and murder, love and sexuality appear in both periods; however, since The Good Son emerge more romantic ballads on female beauty and love. Subsequently sexuality and subjects of violence and murder did not disappear from the lyrics; its extent has become nevertheless smaller. When regarding love in the production of Nick Cave of the 1980s one has to trace it in relation with the darksome issues discussed in this chapter. The poetic issues that have started to appear in a greater extent in the early 1990s have initiated the shift from sexuality to spirituality in the songs by Cave. As a result then, the author has not changed his constant preoccupation but altered his approach towards it by viewing love from a different perspective, probably from a more milder one – the shocking features of murder and violence simply disappeared and were replaced by images of pure emotionality. The last chapter will deal with spiritual topics in love songs during a third era after Murder Ballads that provided the climax of the sexual and violent lyrics.
3. Spiritual Love Lyrics
The last part of the thesis will discuss the spiritual, romantic, and emotional issues of Nick Cave’s love songs. The first aim of this chapter is to describe the main elements that represented the shift from the earlier work to such a sort of love lyrics that had predominantly appeared since the recording and working on The Boatman’s Call album, released in 1997. This collection presented not just a different approach to music with the piano as the lead musical instrument; it had to offer a reaction to the last two records – Murder Ballads and Let Love In – which brought Cave and the Bad Seeds a remarkable commercial success. The chapter’s second target is to confront the spiritual love lyrics to the preceding ones and to find reasons for that change.
There are four sections in the third chapter apart from the introduction. The first one will illustrate Nick Cave’s own opinions on love songs, namely its characteristics and its uniqueness. Each one of the following divisions then will discuss particular albums. Presently, chronological order will be followed. The first part will be dealing with The Boatman’s Call, the second one with No More Shall We Part, and the last one with Nocturama. The aim of this specific division is to trace the process of songwriting after the shift to spirituality in a compact way; I will attempt to analyse the development of specific patterns that characterised each release. As a result, regarding Cave’s lyrics on these three records, the last part of the thesis will be dealing with the work published from 1997 to 2003 when Nocturama was released.
3.2 Nick Cave’s Love Song
Although the subject of faith in relation to love has always been a key element that flows through a great number of songs by Nick Cave, its importance has become increasingly essential since the second half of the 1990s. Let us present a number of Cave’s thoughts on the love song and its relation to faith.
Nick Cave is dealing with the love song throughout his whole career. An explanation for that occupation may be given on the release of a two-lecture-CD with an address “The Secret Life of the Love Song”17. The record has been originally presented in 1999 as a lecture, delivered at the South Bank Centre in London. Cave in the role of a “teacher” introduces theories of writing love songs. He acknowledges that his artistic life has been centred on the need to articulate feelings of loss and longing that have occurred in his personal life. He claims that a majority of his two hundred songs are considered to be love songs. Consequently regarding popular music, love does not contain only the cliché of holding hands and happiness. What is more important is that Cave tries to follow artistic methods and creativity by writing lyrics: “Here our creative impulses lie in ambush at the side of our lives ready to leap forth and kick holes in it – holes through which inspiration can rise”. Hence Cave’s motivation for writing love lyrics derives from the need to express notions via songs whose central theme is love as the argument for creativity.
Spiritual matters and addressing God become key elements of his love song-writing. God and Jesus Christ are on the same level as love itself. The spirituality and Christian imagery have been incorporated into lyrics since the Berlin years and later intensified as concepts of the love songs in the 1990s. “Writing allowed me direct access to my imagination, to inspiration and, ultimately, to God. I found that through the use of language I was writing God into existence. [...] The actualizing of God through the medium of the Love Song remains my prime motivation as an artist”. Therefore it proves that the issue of faith stays in relation to love throughout a major part of his career: let us name for instance two love songs – a) “Bless His Ever Loving Heart” and b) “There Is a Kingdom” – where the author directly actualizes God’s presence: ad a) “Bless his ever loving heart / Only He knows who you are” (Cave 335), and ad b) “There is a king / And He lives without / And He lives within” (271).
Let us carry on with the mood of the love songs; Nick Cave defines the ambience which marks the feeling of individual records that are to a certain extent dark, sinister, and gloomy no matter at what time he wrote them. That has to do with his attitude towards the lyrics:
I believe the Love Song to be a sad song. It is the noise of sorrow itself. [...] Those songs that speak of love, without having within their lines an ache or a sigh, are not Love Songs at all, but rather Hate Songs disguised as Love Songs and are not to be trusted. These songs deny us our human-ness and our God-given right to be sad, and the airwaves are littered with them.
According to the theory that a love song has to be sad, there may be no doubt why all
the violence, sadness, despair, and painful longing occurs in the work; it has to be depressing in some way. Regarding the lyrics’ mood, there are two main terms for Cave: “saudade” and “duende”. As the author explains both of them have to be the core of a real “Love Song”.
“We all experience within us what the Portuguese call ‘saudade’, which translates as an inexplicable longing, an unnamed and enigmatic yearning of the soul, and it is this feeling that lives in the realms of imagination and inspiration and is the breeding ground for the sad song, for the Love Song”. The latter term “duende” (which comes from Spanish and has been originally described in a lecture by Federico García Lorca) Cave explains as an “inexplicable sadness”.
All things considered, Cave does explicitly express the development of the love song-writing which has to imply sorrowful characteristics and has to contain spiritual issues, namely God and faith. These were also indiscerptible elements of his earlier songs (“The Mercy Seat”, “Hard on for Love”, etc.). Nevertheless the shift only confirms the claim that Cave did not change the key subject of his writing but regards love from a different point of view, which is a more moderate one – the “unexlicable longing and sadness” seem to be the crucial features of his songs. They have appeared in the past already and both remain in more recent lyrics. The characters of “From Her to Eternity” and “Loverman” are driven by sexual desires and later, songs like “Brompton Oratory” and “And No More Shall We Part” are remarkable for its unique professions of love. In other words Nick Cave’s writing changed in its form but the actual subject matter – the longing for love – still continues to occur. The following sections will throw more light on particular albums.
3.3 The Boatman’s Call
The album was released in 1997 and became a sharp break in Cave’s writing. After an era which mingled romantic ballads with songs of violence and murder came a completely new age of pure expression of love and spirituality. The first step towards that shift began with The Good Son’s “Foi na Cruz” and the process of change was completed with the tracks on The Boatman’s Call. I am going to discuss three songs in particular: 1) “Into My Arms”,
2) “Lime Tree Arbour”, and 3) “Brompton Oratory”. I would like to point out what they have in common and why they represent the whole collection as a marking point of Cave’s work.
The lyrics are full of sadness and unfullfilled love. They are – according to Cave – perfect examples of love songs. The author was inspired by authentic events from his personal life18. The Christian motives are apparent in a number of them. First, let us look upon “Into My Arms”. The author confronts his ideas with his beloved one’s, namely on faith:
I don’t believe in an interventionist God
But I know, darling that you do
But if I did I would kneel down and ask Him
Not to intervene when it came to you
And if he felt He had to direct you
Then direct you into my arms. (Cave 265)
Cave continues and compares the woman with an angel (“And I don’t believe in the existence of angels / But looking at you I wonder if that’s true” (265)). The “brutality” of the earlier lyrics has vanished and now a completely new approach is present – tenderness, care, and senistivity. The message of the song lies in the final verse:
But I believe in Love
And I know darling that you do too
And I believe in some kind of path
That we can walk down me and you. (265)
Cave expresses his belief in love. It is very interesting because in the previous verses he claims he had not trusted in angels or an interventionist God in contrast to his beloved woman. When we compare the earlier lyrics to “Into My Arms”, we can watch the main change in considering the woman not as an object. Hence the approach is different but the message of love stays actually the same.
Another song from the album is “Lime-Tree Arbour”. There is a noticable feature of a “protective hand” which can in fact belong to a woman or to God (or to both of them). According to Hanson, “one of his loveliest compositions” (127) is quite short – only four verses and a chorus. I will display two verses and the chorus:
The wind in the trees is whispering
Whispering low that I love her
She puts her hand over mine
Down in the lime-tree arbour. (Cave 267)
Actually these lines may not contain anything extraordinary; however the image of the hand goes through the whole song; for instance in another verse:
There will always be suffering
It flows through life like water
I put my hand over hers
Down in the lime-tree arbour. (267)
Finally, the chorus (which finishes the record) restates the lyrics’ meaning once again:
Through every word that I speak
And every thing I know
There is a hand that protects me
And I do love her so. (267)
The chorus opens a question whether the protecting hand belongs to God or to a woman. Nevertheless the lyrics show that the spiritual imagery is again very close to the professions of love just as in “Into My Arms”. Both songs’ message of love comes along with the final lines. The concept of the album is constant – the beloved person and God appear in the lyrics. Cave’s theory of “duende” is as well continual since the sorrow is present.
Finally, the last piece from The Boatman’s Call I would like to discuss is “Brompton Oratory”. The song, just as the previous ones in this section, has a reverential mood according to the text and the singer’s civil performance. At this point Nick Cave praises
And I wish that I was made of stone
So that I would not have to see
A beauty impossible to define
A beauty impossible to believe
No God up in the sky
No Devil beneath the sea
Could do the job that you did
Of bringing me to my knees. (Cave 270)
The power of woman’s love and beauty and its relation with God is present in these lyrics again. That concept is very close to the image of a woman and an interventionist God of “Into My Arms” and the protecting hand of “Lime-Tree Arbour”. Actually, Cave combines the earthly and heavenly power on The Boatman’s Call with a poetic art. Gray describes the intention of the last four lines of “Brompton Oratory” as a “facility with which he moves between sacred and secular19”.
The Christian and Biblical imagery has appeared for the first time already in the 1980s; however, on this album Cave shifted to the New Testament completely. It is necessary to mention that the entire spiritual imagery is in relation to love and adoration. The songs have a pure emotionality towards a woman (not a female object!) and God in common. That album’s mood has been something completely different in comparison to Cave’s earlier work. Namely, there is no sign of any violence, abjection, sadistic pleasure, male power etc. The process of the shift from sexuality to spirituality has begun during the São Paulo years and as a whole was finished in 1997. The form has changed but the preoccupation with love has remained. Hence The Boatman’s Call has marked a new stage of his career.
3.4 No More Shall We Part
The album followed the preceding one after four years; that is in 2001. Let us explore the mood of the lyrics and point out what has been new after the breaking point of The Boatman’s Call and which patterns have remained. I will ilustrate the release with two songs: 1) “And No More Shall We Part” and 2) “Love Letter”.
If the previous album has been a “break-up” record, No More Shall We Part has to be described as a “wedding” one. “Whereas the earlier set cast Cave as the budding or spurned lover, this was very much his Wedding Album, with the celebratory tone of that description marred only by Cave’s apparent reaction to marriage” (Hanson 130). However it does not mean that the individual pieces are somewhat happier. The “duende” and “saudade” is again omnipresent. Nick Cave is weaving “the essence of Leonard Cohen” on the album. The songs flow as a pure poetry just as in the work of the Canadian poet/singer Cohen (Hanson 130)20.
The title of the song “And No More Shall We Part” reveals that the track is dealing with the topic of union (marriage, at this point). Actually Cave married model Susie Bick and settled in England (Hanson 127). Hence the song (and the whole album) corresponds with reality in its essence:
No more will I say, dear heart
I am alone and she has left me
And no more shall we part
The contracts are drawn up, the ring is locked upon the finger
All the hatchets have been buried now
And the birds will sing to your beautiful heart
And no more shall we part
Your chain of commands has been silenced now. (Cave 305)
There are a number of marriage symbols in the lyrics. By some means the singer makes comments on the actual state of being, which in fact is a kind of putting up with the reality that has its authentic grounds in Nick Cave’s life. The author follows a style of a calm melancholic delivery just as on The Boatman’s Call. Whereas the previous title record was dealing with separation of lovers, the actual track’s occupation is based upon a union before God. Such a claim only confirms that actual features from Cave’s life have changed his artistic approach and shifted the lyrics towards romantic and spiritual side.
The song “Love Letter”21 is not actually a love letter but rather contemplation about writing it. The musical characteristics consistently follows a fairly calmer production with the piano’s accompaniment. The initial verse:
I hold this letter in my hand
A plea, a petition, a kind of prayer
I hope it does as I have planned
Losing her again is more than I can bear
I kiss the cold white envelope
I press my lips against her name
Two hundred words. We live in hope
The sky hangs heavy with rain. (Cave 309)
The author stays within the subject of pure professions of love and emotionality. The difference to the three discussed songs from The Boatman’s Call is above all no reference to God, who is replaced by the nature’s elements (i.e. rain, wind, and storm). At this moment Nick Cave’s maturity seems to have a major effect on his writing. Whereas formerly the singer’s delivery and lyrics were often wild (e.g. “Loverman”), now mostly calm, mild lyrics are the core of his love songs. This is Nick Cave as a poet, not only as a songwriter.
The No More Shall We Part collection put forward Nick Cave’s love songwriting. The matter of God and faith remained key aspects of the lyrics. The theme of spirituality and pure expression of love and beauty developed also in accordance with the music. Previous records before the shift were mostly unthinkable without an electric guitar; however, piano has later frequently become a solo instrument. The mood as a whole regards Cave’s theory of “duende” and “saudade”; the songs continue to be grieving, nevertheless with a sense of equanimity. The singer’s marriage proved to have its effects.
The album completes a “triptych” of the records after the change in songwriting. Although the previous two releases were mostly praised by critics, this collection was not received very well by the press22. Let us present the whole title initially with two love songs representing Nocturama – namely 1) “Wonderful Life” and 2) “Still in Love”.
In contrast to the mood of the two preceding records which were distinguished by a gentle voice and a rather calm musical accompaniment, Nocturama provided two faces: songs coming back to Nick Cave’s punk-rock roots (e.g. “Bring it On”, “Dead Man in My Bed”, and “Babe, I’m on Fire”) and melancholic pieces that followed the path of The Boatman’s Call and No More Shall We Part. That was an interesting mixture, generally speaking.
I will discuss the album’s soother side and try to find the points characteristic for the balladical era of the second half of the 1990s. “Wonderful Life” is the opening track of the whole album. The song contains a typical feature of the last recordings – the singer openly addresses his beloved one:
Come in, babe
Across these purple fields
The sun sunk behind you
Across these purple fields
There will be nothing between us, baby
But the air that we breathe. (Cave, Nocturama Booklet 3)
The lyrics show their emotional side which is fairly characteristic for Cave’s later style. There is once more no sign of anything close to the picture of physical expression of love in his earlier work; the author’s poetic, emotional, and sorrowful spirit prevails. Subsequently, the elements of nature seem to replace God – “Plunge your hands into the water / And drown it into sea” (3) – but the melancholic and sad mood remains. However the chorus leads to the title’s optimistic message: “It’s a wonderful life that you bring / It’s a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful thing” (4).
The title of the song “Still in Love” is characteristic for Nocturama. To put it in a different way – Cave is always preoccupied with love in his lyrics. The chorus symbolizes on the one hand his whole work – the topic of love – and on the other his changing approach to emotionality and senitive songs. Cave addresses his beloved one again:
And I say to the sleepy summer rain
With a complete absence of pain
You might think I’m crazy
But I’m still in love with you. (Cave, Nocturama Booklet 10)
“Still in Love” just as the whole Nocturama album does not contain such a strong spiritual imagery as lyrics on The Boatman’s Call for instance. Nevertheless the individual songs remain in the spirit of the last recordings represented here by “Wonderful Life” and “Still in Love”. The relationship between a man and a woman tends to be the core of the love songs, thus in this way in accordance with the last three record titles.
The last chapter was dealing with two main elements of Nick Cave’s production of the late 1990s and early 2000s; i.e. emotionality and spirituality. Both of them marked the author’s writing as the major features of the later work. Let us confront the earlier work: mostly violent, sexual, and sinister subject matter dominated his former songwriting with The Birthday Party and The Bad Seeds; since the early 1990s these themes have not disappeared but accompanied the emotional and spiritual face of Cave’s lyrics. The Boatman’s Call brought the final variation; the preoccupation with the poetic form outweighed the past approaches – the songs discussed above (e.g. “Into My Arms”, “Brompton Oratory”, “Love Letter”, “Wonderful Life” etc.) have no sense of any shocking features like murder and sadism. Cave has changed his approach. However he has remained exclusively an author of love songs. Consequently the shift from sexuality to pure love can be illustrated as a process. Just as other artists, Nick Cave and his songs have undergone a change. The meaning of his lyrics depends mostly on individual interpretation. In fact, it does not matter whether we regard the “Australian bard” as a poetic singer or a singing poet.
Nick Cave’s recent lyrics are different in comparison to the early work with The Birthday Party and The Bad Seeds. The distinction lies utterly in the form and approach – the topic of love has not disappeared. Consequently the particular shift has replaced depraved sexuality, violence, sadistic pleasure, and murder by fondness, emotionality, faith, God, and celebration of love in life. Cave’s writing has developed in accordance with his professional and personal life. The cultural surroundings have always had a dominant effect on his lyrics. The punk-rock era has ignited the rebel in Nick Cave. His rebel-style was later developed in relation with the blues legacy in Berlin. Brazil’s anonymity made the author calmer again. Specifically maturity and family relationship have brought new insights to his writing.
Break-ups and marriage for instance have shown the autobiographical features in his work. The love lyrics have always been at the centre of his interest; therefore the shaping from a representative of the post-punk era to a respected author and songwriter has formed individual records. The shift from sexuality to spirituality has occurred as a process in relation with Nick Cave’s life.
What tendencies does the Australian singer follow? Nick Cave has developed into a poet, just as his “teachers” Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen who represent the older generation. He traces their tradition of songwriters, poets, and narrators. The real literary ambitions go hand in hand with Cave’s lyrics. In general he has led a life of an individualistic person of popular music whose work should stand over the mediocre ones. Just like the rebel in his lyrics, Cave has always stood outside the world of conventions and mainstream. His exceptional work with love lyrics at its centre has had an effect on other artists’ production (e.g. Johnny Cash). Such appreciation – along with popularity among his fans – has always been more important for him than any competition. Nowadays, among popular musicians, Nick Cave is a unique artist who might be regarded in the future as an icon just as Dylan, Cash, and Cohen. Cave’s work is outstanding and matches their genius with his love songs. Let us conclude with a quotation from a letter that Cave sent in 1996 to MTV as a reaction to a nomination for the “Best Male Artist”. “My music is unique and individual and exists beyond the realms inhabited by those who would reduce things to mere measuring. […] My muse is not a horse and I am in no horse race and if indeed she was, still I would not harness her to this tumbrel” (Nick-cave.com).
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Articles and Essays
Bartlett, Thomas. “The Resurrection of Nick Cave”. Salon. 18 Nov. 2004. 13 Nov. 2006
Cave, Nick. “The Secret Life of the Love Song.” The Secret Life of the Love Song. The Flesh
Made Word: Two Lectures by Nick Cave. King Mob, 2000.
Gray, Louise. “Nick Cave – Being a Musician with a Passionate and Shocking Talent.” New
Internationalist. 1 Mar. 2000. 15 Nov. 2006 <http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0JQP/is_321/ai_30301683>.
Nashawaty, Chris. “The Baddest Seed.” Entertainment Weekly 19 May 2006: 47.
Reynolds, Simon. “Flirting with the Void: Abjection in Rock.” The Sex Revolts: Gender,
Rebellion and Rock and Roll. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995.
---, “She’s Hit: Songs of Fear and Loathing.” The Sex Revolts: Gender, Rebellion and Rock
and Roll. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995.
Sturges, Fiona. “Wild Rose”. Independent. 4 Sep. 2004. 18 Dec. 2006