Nick Cave: the transcendent power of music

By Martin Vogel

bad seeds

The most memorable and moving cultural event I experienced this year was seeing Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds perform at the London Arena in September. In fact, I could say that in any year I see the band in concert. But this year was especially poignant.

Rock music has acquired roughly the position in our culture that jazz had when I was growing up: the breakthrough art form of an earlier generation, kept on life support by an ageing cohort of afficionados. Nick Cave has been in the business a long time and manages to observe the boundaries of the form while keeping it fresh and innovative. He surrounds himself with musicians of the highest calibre and inventiveness and produces music that spans the spectrum from hard-edged, dark, aggression to the most heart-wrenching and romantic ballads. Nick Cave himself is a consumate performer: he strides the stage with visceral energy and has an electric relationship with his audience.

Two years ago, he lost his son, who was 15 years old when he died. The subsequent album, The Skeleton Tree, was completed in the months following his son’s death and resonates with Nick Cave’s grief. The concerts this year were the first since then and there was an inevitable sense of sadness hanging over them. This was the more so since long-time fans know that when you go to a Bad Seeds concert, the playlist will major on the band’s current work and there’s not much dwelling over the back catalogue.

My friend, Simon, observed that they are lucky in their audience who have been happily coached over the years to follow the band on their creative journey. We engage with the new, enjoy such of the old stuff that is offered but don’t pine for the golden moments of the past – of which there are too many to fill a concert programme anyway.

So we knew to expect a concert of songs carrying a heavy weight. But we knew also that the band would not want the performances to be confined by the recent history. In an interview, Nick Cave described his consciousness of the emotional boundary that the performances would have to navigate:

“One thing I don’t want is people having to come along and involve themselves in someone else’s drama. I don’t want the shows to be like that. I want the shows to be uplifting and inspiring and for people to walk away feeling better than when they came, not some sort of empathetic contagion that goes through the crowd and people walk out feeling like shit. I don’t want that. Because I’m not feeling that way. On stage I feel great. It just sort of feels beautiful and inspiring. The songs are strange things, you know. They’re patient, and wait for the meaning and then meaning changes through the years.”

I find this quote interesting as it exemplifies the distinction between the artist, who is constantly drawing on his experience to create his art, and the jobbing performer returning to work, finding a role that allows him to transcend his private experience.

The idea of songs being patient as their meaning evolves is also noteworthy. Nick Cave’s work has shifted over recent years from strongly narrative work, that draws on apocalyptic Old Testament imagery, to more impressionistic pieces that worm their way into your mind but whose meaning is harder to discern. In some ways, this transition reflects the changing circumstances in society at large: the sense of the world turning faster than we comprehend, the effort to describe it in linear terms. As someone who has pursued a research interest in narrative, it resonates with me when Nick Cave talks about how narrative has become too restrictive for him:

“The idea that we live life in a straight line, like a story, seems to me to be increasingly absurd and, more than anything, a kind of intellectual convenience. I feel that the events in our lives are like a series of bells being struck and the vibrations spread outwards, affecting everything, our present, and our futures, of course, but our past as well. Everything is changing and vibrating and in flux.”

These days, rather than reaching for narrative coherence to impose meaning on reality, I find it makes more sense to reside for a while in not knowing. In his film One More Time with Feeling, Nick Cave describes his creative process in similar terms:

“Some magical thing happens which isn’t to do with knowing at all. Accidents.”

Not knowing is the appropriate aesthetic stance for our age. Nick Cave’s music and performance offers this in the raw. It touches you to the core, but you don’t need to make sense of it. You just need to allow your sense of life and humanity to meet it. When you experience a song like Distant Sky (below) performed to an arena audience, all that exists is the present moment, and a sense of connection with the thousands around you who have caught its ineffable truth.

Image courtesy Thomas Helbig.