NICK CAVE AND THE LOVE SONG
This article is an extract from my new book Darker With The Dawn: Nick Cave’s Songs Of Love And Loss
In his 1996 lecture “The Secret Life of the Love Song” Cave states that no matter how they are written, every love song is a letter to God. He acknowledges love as a transcendent state, another weightless step toward spiritual connection, bridging the gap between life on earth and a nascent belief in something beyond ourselves. Elsewhere, love is the trigger for heinous acts of violent revenge, spurred on by an aching feeling, so close to bereavement, which follows after being jilted, spurned, or otherwise betrayed by the object of his affections. Love carries the potential to wreak havoc upon all who come near its wayward forces, marking the dance of mutual connection as another leap of faith.
Ever since the more romantic edge of Cave’s 1990s songwriting he has been associated with songs of love; the soft hand that counterbalances the brutal blows of murder ballads and the sleazy sensuality in his songs of lustful obsession. For Cave “God is love,” where the power of “the word made flesh” is elevated through ‘love’ into a mystical earthly force as to become “the flesh made word.” Beyond physical desire and raw sensuality, it is the rare transcendental qualities the beloved embody that we are drawn to; consider Christina Rossetti’s famous line: “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” The person standing before you is raised up toward a living metaphor.
Cave suggests that the right love bears an openness that turns us away from indifference toward a sense of completeness, just as others might claim to “discover” religion, as though it had always been inside of them. The biblical scholar Roland Boer notes that in his love songs Cave “elides God and woman so that the two are often indistinguishable.” On “Brompton Oratory” Cave is brought to his knees by broken love in a way that neither God nor the devil could ever achieve, casting love as a holy transcendent power, yet still bound to earth.
Also from The Boatman’s Call, “(Are You) the One That I’ve Been Waiting For?” finds Cave calling upon love’s sudden fatalism, arriving out of nowhere, carrying the weight of the inevitable. Here Cave’s blood is fired up by the electrified soul; everything has brought him toward this crucial moment, falling into a magical state of heightened existence. Years after the song was written Cave alluded to a continued spiritual element that inspired his words: “I think as an artist, particularly, it’s a necessary part of what I do, that there is some divine element going on within my songs.” On “Darker with the Day” Cave is preoccupied by a deeper yearning that he cannot fully articulate, a pervasive mood of inchoate loss. In his lecture on the love song, he had discussed the Portuguese word saudade, a feeling of longing, melancholy, or nostalgia often expressed through songs and poetry, which met his own searching disposition toward the unfinished endlessness of love.
Beyond the spiritual element of relationships Cave often shifts gears into the extremes of physical attraction—the grounding force of lust and desire driven into sex. He strides in and out of high-flying romance to carnal excess—the spark that leaps between emotion and flesh—just as easily turning from sensation to an emotional car crash. In “Hard on for Love” Cave attempts to repeatedly shock with the cut-and-thrust of its chanted title and diminishing returns of sexual puns, his mouth crammed full of biblical references and the metaphysical dead lift of blood into milk as conjoined ejaculations of life and death. “Hiding All Away” (2004) is even more overt, expressing sexual need as a show of brute force, the knowingly crude image of the hand shoved under a dress—passion confronted with the reality of physical threat. “Deanna” is one of Cave’s songs that best explores the confusion where depth of feeling becomes loss of control: the young lover is overwhelmed with desire to defrock as both innocent and lethal. The male gaze of Leonard Cohen’s “Last Year’s Man” admits to the lover as both tender and the bad man whose deviance is attractive: “Some women wait for Jesus/Handsome women wait for Cain” (1971).
“Deanna” paints the young love affair as an elegiac adventure where a series of minor crimes are blown up to feel like the forbidden romance of the century. Cave tells the story of a girl he knew back in Melbourne. Together they would break into people’s homes and steal random objects and petty cash. They would also lie in their beds and take small sips from the liquor cabinet; playing house, like visiting ghosts in other people’s lives. Cave riffs on the image of “Ku-Klux-Klan furniture,” discovering a house full of furniture draped in white sheets, as if asleep, waiting for its owner’s return with eyeless stares. The girl builds a kind of burrow under a bridge to stash the loot, fulfilling a kleptomaniac habit—it’s not (just) about the money but the adventure.
Through the song’s raucous jam Cave expresses the split sides to their relationship, like a tarot card flipped between the Thief and the Lovers—he sings of ejaculating death’s head skulls on her pretty dress, the taint of sex and mortality, an echo of the death’s head moth motif from Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs. Through the romp of “Deanna” Cave paints himself as the Devil, declares that he is “down here”—suggesting cunnilingus in hell—not for her money or simply to make her come but to stake a claim upon her immortal soul. “Deanna” displays a rare poppier stomp we would not hear again until 2004’s “Get Ready for Love,” both songs burning with a groove inherited from Iggy and The Stooges’ “Search and Destroy.” The song’s title is chanted “Oh, De-Anna” across split syllables, breaking the back of the hook that bounces along an R&B-inspired spine-shuffling crunch through the Tender Prey album (1988).
Cave’s lyrics stride across clichéd images of a fired gun and sex; penetration met with ejaculation. The abject body horror in the “issue” of blood or semen is a continued trope in his songs as the overlapping stain of sin and pain in love. In this “Deanna” also alludes to the extreme on-the-run scenario of the Terrence Malick film Badlands (1973), where a teenage girl and her slightly older lover, the sociopathic outsider Kit, come together, embarking on a season of violent madness against no-one in particular but the rest of the world. Just like Cave and “Deanna” the couple indulge in fantasies of hitting the road in a Cadillac where “death rides in the backseat.” The car as symbolic vessel of freedom and escape from small-town life, they race toward an inevitable confrontation with their own deaths, a situation they cannot outrun. Like Cohen, Cave poses the question as a challenge: faced with the amor fou of sex conjoined with madness and the possibility of violence—how many women wouldn’t want to be so singularly adored and wildly desired?
In a 1988 interview Cave would explain that he and the mystery girl did once find a gun and that her story ended badly: “One day she was caught by this guy who was in this religious-instruction teacher’s house. The wife of this teacher thrashed her and the guy did something to her, but I really don’t know what it was.” Clearly the two drifted apart. Still with some regret, Cave talked about the song’s autobiographical strain years later: “My song ‘Deanna’ was seen as a particularly brutal act of betrayal, and thirty years on I still haven’t been fully forgiven.” where Deanna Bond, the subject of the song, called it “the bane of my existence.”
Cave’s love songs are often illuminated in terms of high romanticism, where love becomes an all-consuming emotion that turns back on itself toward destructive tendencies on an apocalyptic scale. In the making and breaking of love the universe is pushed out of sync, as if by force of feeling, with Cave caught up in its flow. “Straight to You” (1992) asks the lengths to which the lover would go to be beside their loved one, racing through the streets, fighting their way against collapsing ivory towers, arrows of love tinged with cruel barbs, and swallows with sharpened beaks threatening to dive. The song carries a biblical tone of the private day of judgment upon the waxing and waning of love broken against the world, where rising up into our greatest happiness can also seem to foreshadow its undoing.
“Straight to You” frames a heroic tone within a jangly guitar sound and heaving chorus, masking disaster inside a mainstream indie sound of the early 1990s, divided between melodrama and majesty. Given The Bad Seeds’ tenacious abilities it sits oddly among the buccaneering spirit of Henry’s Dream. But for all its sweeping gloss the song’s lyrics steadily echo the horrific scenes of a world gone mad unfurling across the title track’s nightmare dreamscape. In The Boatman’s Call (1997) we find Cave devastated by relationship breakdown and forced to rebuild his life, as if learning to love again. In 2001’s “Darker with the Day” Cave wanders the streets missing his wife, he lays out these anxieties gazing into the abyss of every crack in the pavement, becoming a chasm of yearning and self-doubt. Each day without her becomes a further step into negative space. This continues a through line from 1990’s “The Ship Song,” “Into My Arms,” and later “I Need You” in 2016, where Cave seeks connection and security anchored in a shared and enduring love when he is most reminded of its absence.
Where in 1990 Cave once admitted, “I used to fall in love at the drop of a hat,” “Straight to You” has the song’s narrator captive to love. By the next Bad Seeds album Let Love In (1994) Cave expands on this emotional bondage. The title track kicks off with flourishing piano and Western twangs of guitar. Love hits in a series of waves, each greater than the last, with Cave struggling to let go and give himself over to the tide. Elsewhere it becomes the knife that cuts through the fog of addiction and the armor of the Nick Cave persona forged over many years, where life with The Bad Seeds was forced to give way to family life.
On the album’s cover Cave stands surrounded by pink fire glaring from the shook foil of the backdrop put together with photographer Polly Borland, reflecting the album’s night of fire and noise in the chambers of the heart where Cave is both purged and punished. The fresh chaos and abrasive hostility of some songs seems to (sub)consciously overturn the surface calm of domesticity Cave was carving out for himself. “Loverman” descends into demonic organ grind of pure fire and brimstone as Cave succumbs to outright desire, dissecting his frustrations in anagram of the song’s title “L-O-V-E-R-M-A-N.” Beyond the middling spark of “Virtue” offering consolation to his carnal drive, his weakness to evil is his true vice. The speech progresses into his demand for total and absolute sexual obedience, anytime, anyhow, anywhere; Cave’s fierce howl echoes out the rancor of tangled guitar as the song claws at the shrinking walls beating within his chest.
Martyn Casey is the secret hero of Let Love In—the first notes of the album on “Do You Love Me Pt. 1” are his R&B-infused bass vibes that fool the listener into an upbeat ride, laying down the spine of the album around which the other Bad Seeds would create a more haunting atmosphere. An ex-member of the Melbourne band The Triffids, his bass groove stands at the core of several of Cave’s most iconic songs, holding things down in the eye of a storm. He casts strident lines through “Red Right Hand,” adds a knotted bounce to “Stagger Lee,” and edges into poise restraint of “We No Who U R”—all led by his slinky, smooth, understated style. For his part, Casey said that Suzi Quattro inspired him to pick up the bass, quoting her: “Guitar is for the head, drums are for the feet, and bass is right between the legs.”
Since the Bad Seeds first album Cave’s songs have personified the dangerous tipping point of love—veering from passionate fascination into full-blown obsession. The ceiling watcher in “From Her to Eternity” is a prisoner of his desire, staring upward hearing “her” footsteps on the floorboards above his head. Andrew Male calls the song “a monstrous, ever-escalating Dostoevskian love song,” carrying echoes of his novella Notes from Underground and the tortured masochism of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. Cave is reduced to a desperately lusting scuttling held under the heel of rage and desire. Co-written with Anita Lane the track’s mordant lust suggests a fiercely male fantasy where Cave’s jilted would-be “lover” resides in a shrinking world that narrows into obsessive thinking. Envy and jealousy are often turned back against the beholder, while for the victims of his songs beauty often becomes a curse. Warren Ellis noted how all the instruments build toward the song’s cataclysmic payoff, front-loaded with the phallic thrust of the chanted lyrics the guitar’s searing drone cuts through the mind—the violent and overwhelming power of love that drives us to do terrible things in its name.
Sharing the same obsessive drive in the softly intoned “Watching Alice” Cave acknowledged the forced perspective of the watcher at his window. He sees the girl in her apartment across the street dressing into her uniform on a warm summer’s morning. He notes the detail that she brushes her hair a hundred times. His longing stare might be innocent, but such is his obsession that he cannot turn away. A sedately marched ballad with a breezy harmonica slow, it is quite out of character for The Bad Seeds. Cave’s vocals pour sweetness into the listener’s ear, as his eyes run over her glowing body. Though vaguely titled, the song’s arch intentions give a firm twist to the line of good taste. The power of the setting comes from the uncertainty Cave rests in the heavy breathless pauses: Does Alice secretly know she is being observed or does her watcher want to be caught, simply to be noticed in return? The song also offers the hope of some fantasy scenario in which their eyes meet and they fall in love, but under the heavy address of Cave’s unflinching stare the possibility of romance seems nothing more than a dream.
This article is an extract from my new book Darker With The Dawn: Nick Cave’s Songs Of Love And Loss
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