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Nick Cave has a hard time describing his music, and as he speaks over the phone from New York City, he does so slowly. He forms his words with calculated enunciation, and though he is never evasive, he answers questions carefully and thoughtfully, like a man pondering his own existence for no good reason.
Cave lives in Europe, where he enjoys the status of patron saint of Romantic Gloom for good reason; he gives the impression of a man likely to sign a Valentine's Day card in blood, and he often seems to be an author slumming as a rock star. There's literature in his veins, but power chords in his soul. Yet he often relays sentences that have no more meaning than the sum of their words, so quick is Cave to live up to--or down to--his myth.
"It is novelty music," he says of his work, perhaps mockingly dismissive. "I really don't know how to describe it, and I'm glad that I don't have to do that. That's your job, not mine. My music is a progressive attempt to define myself as a person and has very little to do with anything else.
"Sometimes it's embarrassingly irrelevant to what's going on at the moment, and other times it seems to be kind of close to what's going on. Hopefully, it's just music that exists on its own--which, I think, is what the best music does."
For the past 16 years, the Australian-born musician, now 38, has carved a lonely career path paved with brilliant, emotionally charged albums. He first came to the spotlight in 1980 fronting the primal art-punk band The Birthday Party, which burned out because of its own sheer intensity. He then formed The Bad Seeds in 1984 with multi-instrumentalist Mick Harvey, and since then Cave has released 10 immaculate albums--nine studio, one live--filled with colorful, doomed characters who often commit ghastly, unspeakable deeds. They're Cave's kind of people, the misunderstood evil who'd just as soon kill you as say hello.
Cave's songs possess a thick, cinematic texture, rendered even more vivid because of Cave's flashy command of language. As one of the most literate musicians to inhabit the mostly monosyllabic pop world, Cave lets his voice waver between drama and melodrama with as much ease as The Bad Seeds jump from blues to folk to punk to lounge to Kurt Weill-style cabaret to gospel. The sparse arrangements give the singer room to recount his stories, and they deliver the brooding effect that characterizes his sound.
Cave's solipsistic creative trail is versatile and prolific: In addition to his recording output, he has also penned two novels, King Ink and And the Ass Saw the Angel, the latter being an astonishing novel that reads like hallucinogenic William Faulkner by way of the Bible. It's a Gothic and ethereal read, the work of an artist who stepped out of the narrow confines of pop to prove he can exist in the world of the artist--be he behind the microphone or the pen. Cave even frowns at the idea of being lumped together with other current pop-music characters.
"I have no opinion whatsoever on pop music," he shrugs. "It's music made for young people. Kids like it. But I'm not a kid. I'm a mature adult and have no interest in that whatsoever. One of the great things about being old is that you don't have to be around young people anymore."
With good reason, Cave has often been compared to the other Dr. Gloom, Leonard Cohen. Both men find inspiration in the end of love instead of the blossoming; they're men fixated upon death instead of birth, viewing it as a romantic and welcome guest no matter when and how it arrives. A line from "Do You Love Me?," off the magnificent 1994 release Let Love In, is indicative of Cave's tormented muse: "All things move toward their end/I knew before I met her that I would lose her."
Cave and Cohen's brooding ballads would make a perfect couple on two sides of a homemade tape, and Cave cannot hide his admiration for the 61-year-old singer-songwriter-poet.
"Leonard Cohen is a truly creative individual artist who will always be able to continue to make records," Cave says. "He's been allowed, I think, by the forces of the universe--whatever they may be--to continue to make music simply because he's making music honestly, never trying to accommodate the taste of anybody. So he continues to make wonderful, important, personal, idiosyncratic records. I would very much want to be like that when I'm his age."
As Cave continues to talk about his influences, his voice warms up, and an affectionate tone sets in. For a musician whose impressive body of work puts to shame most of his contemporaries, with every new album improving upon the previous one, he displays a rare humility.
"At the end, what makes people like Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Van Morrison, and Johnny Cash--who are heroes of mine--and what has allowed them to continue to write, perform, and make records, is the spiritual element to their work," he insists. "They've somehow found a greater purpose in making music. I've always felt a very strong pull in that direction myself. Why I make music and what I get from my music is that the process of writing elevates me above and beyond mediocre, normal existence."
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