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."
Cave has struggled with his own demons over time; his publicized bouts with heroin are both responsible for and the result of his self-destructive persona. Yet Cave does not shy away from giving guided tours through the dark terrain of his personality. From the chaotic 1984 From Her to Eternity to the serene, post-detox 1990 The Good Son, Cave has put his mangled heart on the plate and served it to guests.
He's a throwback artist in many respects, the tortured and lost writer who uses his craft to illuminate the darker recesses only to find there's no bottom to the well. He's forever screwed, looking for something he thinks he's lost but never actually possessed in the first damn place.
"Happiness to me is about a sense of order in my life," he explains. "I can feel two sides pulling against one another. One side of my personality is very much about chaos and confusion and self-destruction. The other side is far more creative, which is about order and things having their place, and that's when I'm feeling content and happy about things. Left to my own devices, I'm being on my own all the time, and that can be a damaging kind of thing."
Like another writer, William Burroughs, Cave plunged into the heart of darkness as an amateur and resurfaced as the born-again artist. With his penchant for finding humor in the macabre, he can create characters and situations so sordid that the end result is bizarrely funny, and it's a talent most often reserved for those who've hung by their heels above the abyss and been kissed by the flames below.
Their tales are always visceral, always fascinating, always engrossing, but none more so for Cave than those on his new album Murder Ballads--an appropriate, and long overdue, record for Cave, for whom murder has always been a prominent subject. It's a bleak, thrilling record that splashes the listener in gore as it romps through the entrails; Cave kills with glee, like a serial killer with a day pass from the penitentiary, smiling as he blows the heads off young boys who go down on him. Cave describes the record as a side project, though, just an impersonal album that alleviates the heavy emotional toll Let Love In took on him.
"I wanted a real break from the personal lyrics I wrote for Let Love In," he says. "I wanted to make a record that had nothing about me in it, a series of stories that I wrote with some kind of music to it written very quickly and played quickly behind it. The music was really just designed to carry along the words. It wasn't intended to be a true Bad Seeds record, but it has become one now."
Ironically, this so-called side project happens to contain some of Cave's best writing. He flexes his lyrical muscle with such powerful conviction that Murder Ballads is one of the young year's finest works, especially with songs like "O'Malley's Bar" (an epic tale that is to the pop song what the novella is to the paragraph), the updated gangsta "Stagger Lee," and "The Kindness of Strangers" that are so over-the-top in their violent content and Cave's gut-wrenching delivery they end up sounding absurdly hilarious.
Cave is like directors Quentin Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez, wallowing in the excesses and laughing as they choke on the blood; they go to the extremes, then take it 10 steps farther till you either recoil or laugh. Either way, they make their points, then drive them through your head.
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"This record is basically a lighthearted comic record," says the man who spends one song describing how he did in each victim ("The bullet...blew his bowels out on the floor"). "I don't think the kind of murder that's going on in this world today is that way. The songs don't appear modern. A lot of them are steeped in the traditional genre of the murder ballad, which I find interesting coming from the Scottish-English-Irish ballads that were written many years ago and had that kind of inborn romanticism about the notion of murder--'a man finds a woman and he takes her down the river and kills her' type of thing.
"This is a hopelessly outdated notion of what murder is actually like. There is something that appeals to me about that."
Interestingly enough, the mass killer in "O'Malley's Bar," who executes all the bar patrons while sporting an erection, is sketched to look like Cave himself. He stands tall and thin, and his head is covered with a thick mane of black hair. When told the murderous narrator resembles his creator, Cave chuckles.
"Does he? It's a humorous song and I kind of based it on myself a little bit." He ponders the implications. "It's just a comic device. I wouldn't read too much into that.