Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Popular Culture

God, Pain and Love in the Music of Nick Cave

Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Popular Culture

God, Pain and Love in the Music of Nick Cave

Article excerpt

[1] My topic is the love songs of Nick Cave, who remains one of the most original and arresting of alternative musicians in last three decades. Cave, front man for bands such as The Birthday Party and--more famously--the Bad Seeds, has woven together music, poetry and performances that draw heavily upon the Bible and yet creatively reinterpret that text. (1) So also with the love song, which is not only one of the basic genres of Cave's writing but also finds inspiration in the Bible. For most people, a mention of Cave's love song evokes the soft and rather melodious songs of the 1990s and early 2000s--"Into My Arms," the "Ship Song" and "Where the Wild Roses Grow" are perhaps the best known of these. They were also the songs that gave Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds a much wider audience, for the ex-punk rocker had finally given away the clashing music and harsh lyrics for the piano and harmony. It may, then, come as a surprise to find out that Nick Cave has been writing love songs ever since he began writing in his teens (i.e., for almost four decades). There are a rather large number of them; Cave says that at a rough count he has written over 200, which is more than the official releases of all the songs he has written. (2) And they cover all the phases through which Cave has moved with his music--some evoke the first awakening of love and its passion, others the sadness of parting, yet others pain and revenge and anger and sheer brutality.

[2] How are we to make sense of such a range of love songs? I wish to argue that two factors are crucial to the way that the love song comes together in Cave's music: God and pain (whether inflicted or received). Before I do so, however, we need to deal with a couple of reflections on the love song by Cave himself. As ever, he tries to direct the interpretation of his own material. As I have at length elsewhere, Cave is not the best interpreter of his own work. (3) For example, Cave states in a lecture on the love song in 1999, "The Song of Solomon, perhaps the greatest Love Song ever written, had a massive impact on me". He followed this up with: "The Song of Solomon is an extraordinary Love Song but it was the remarkable series of love song/poems known as the Psalms that truly held me ... In many ways these songs became the blueprint for many of my more sadistic love songs." (4)

[3] All of this may seem promising. We could distinguish between the "Solomon Songs," which focus on the love merely between Cave and a woman (the Song of Solomon does not contain a reference to God), and the "Psalm Songs," which include God and pain. Unfortunately it is not so straightforward, for the combinations of pain and God in Cave's love song are far more complex. Cave has given me the key terms--God, pain and the love song with a heavy reliance on the Bible--but he is not as clear as he might be about them.

[4] Rather than engage in a pseudo detective hunt, where I conjure up a conclusion after deft sifting through the evidence and a flash of insight, let me lay out my position here and then explain it in some detail. The two terms of pain and God appear in a pattern of presence and absence, for a song may include or exclude pain and it may do the same with God. In other words, we have four logical possibilities: with pain and without God; with pain and with God; without pain and without God; without pain and with God. As I set out to explore the contours of each type, I begin with some general comments only to move on and focus on a representative example.

[5] My whole analysis actually fits within a diagram, a version of the Aristotelian square of logical opposites that was later appropriated by Greimas for linguistic analysis and Jameson in order to map out the ideological limits of a cultural product. (5) It has four points.

-pain [left arrow] [right arrow] -God


+pain [left arrow] [right arrow] +God

Each of the relations, horizontal and diagonal, give us the categories of Cave's love song: pain, -God; -pain, +God; +pain, -God; +pain, +God. …

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