Larger than life: “Cave is creating a disguise which, ironically, makes him instantly recognisable – and then hiding inside it”. Photo: Brian Rasic / Rex
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Tracey Thorn on Nick Cave: man and bogeyman

Rock's gothic - or comic - bogeyman gives a masterclass in transformation at the Royal Albert Hall.

In my worst ever anxiety nightmare, I am on stage at the Royal Albert Hall performing a concert, when I look down and see that I am completely naked. It’s a classic of its kind, encapsulating a singer’s most basic ­insecurity, and doesn’t take much decoding. I’ve always assumed such terrors are solely the province of those like me who don’t feel themselves to be natural performers, who fear the stage and often end up fleeing it, and so I’ve come here tonight to see the consummate showman Nick Cave partly in the hope that he can show me how it’s done.

He’s known as a stage-owner, a crowd-controller, a larger-than-life shaman of rock, so I don’t imagine he suffers from stage fright, and yet, leafing through his new book, The Sick Bag Song, a collection of diary entries and lyrics written on a recent US tour, I stumble across the following lines, where he describes his feelings before going on stage in Philadelphia – “I was a nude descending a staircase . . ./Into the anticipating dark”. Who knows, maybe there is a fear of exposure behind his carefully constructed look; maybe, after all, it is a suit of armour. In a charmingly self-deprecating passage, he writes about touching up his hair backstage, aware of the semi-ridiculousness of his appearance and its innate artificiality as he tries to make himself look less “like Kim Jong-un and . . . more like Johnny Cash”.

He arrives quietly on stage – no grand entrance, no fanfare – dressed all in black, of course (as am I, out of a sort of respect), and seats himself at the piano. The first time I saw Nick Cave was in 1981, in his post-punk band the Birthday Party at the Lyceum, around the time of the single “Release the Bats”. I think they frightened the life out of me and I think they meant to. But this mature balladeer is an altogether more sober proposition and for the first few songs I’m a little disappointed by how sedate things are. My fault, perhaps – I’ve come here hoping for a masterclass in showing off and here he is being all restrained and sensitive.

Then he gets up and the show comes to life. Prowling the front of the stage, lanky and spidery like Robert Helpmann’s Child Catcher, he reminds me of Mark Rylance’s comments about acting – that it is part electricity, going out towards the audience, and part magnet, drawing the audience towards you. Cave has spoken about how the act of walking on stage requires a step up, a gear change, a kind of transformation, and it is when he seems most “in character”, least naturalistic, that he is the most impressive. Working the front row like a boy band or a supper club crooner would, his performance can be hammy as hell, but God it’s fun. Barney Hoskyns recently described him as “rock’s Gothic bogeyman” but there’s also a touch of rock’s comic bogeyman, and Cave seems fully aware of the humour in much of what he does. But it’s not that he doesn’t mean it, more that he knows what works.

And what so often works onstage is an understanding of unreality; he’s a singer who is comfortable with notions of artifice and of performance as play. In The Sick Bag Song he writes about calling on “the nine Muses for assistance”, of the need for inspiration to arrive from outside in order to make something happen:

We call upon them all, this diverse and squabbling army of inspiration, to each breathe their curling tendrils of transmutation and combustion across the stage, so that we can begin, in love, and get this fucking show on the road.

Tonight, in “Jubilee Street”, when he sings, “I’m transforming, I’m vibrating/I’m glowing/I’m flying”, I realise that those who are good onstage have plenty of what Rylance calls the electrical part of performing – a life force that radiates outwards.

To some degree Cave carries this trans­formation around with him in everyday life, having quite early on in his career created a persona that he seems to inhabit much of the time. In last year’s documentary film 20,000 Days on Earth, he played with the idea of there being a character called “Nick Cave”, who may or may not be him. Driving around the East Sussex coastline, he reminded me of nothing so much as Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin, a beautiful, exotic alien in the most earthly of landscapes. Recently on Twitter, in another alarming example of the general public behaving like paparazzi, someone posted a photo of Cave asleep on a train to Brighton, the astonished and feverish replies all seeming to embody the same thought: “HOW ON EARTH CAN NICK CAVE BE ON A TRAIN?”

In other words, how can he be real, be normal? And what does it mean for singers that we mythologise them like this? How can they live with the strangeness of people’s response to them? Perhaps simply by staying in costume and in character, creating a disguise that, ironically, makes them instantly recognisable, and then hiding inside it. I was never able to do this – or never thought to do it – and I’m still not sure whether it’s a route to sanity, making peace with your fame, or whether it is in itself a kind of madness, an embodiment of damage done.

But cleverly, and perhaps unexpectedly, Cave has come up with an image that is allowing him to age rather gracefully. The skinny physique, which he uses to such good end, is that of a much younger man, but never does he seem uncomfortable with his actual age, or appear to be straining for something out of reach. And his vocal delivery has matured to the point where the singer he most resembles is Neil Diamond. I mean this as a huge compliment and I know I’m not the first to point it out, but ­really the likeness is uncanny.

Tonight during “And No More Shall We Part” and “The Ship Song”, I drift off into a bit of a reverie, hearing Diamond’s weary, yearning baritone in my ears. I imagine him doing a cover of “The Mercy Seat” and then – oh, even more exciting! – I think of Cave singing “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers”, with Kylie or Polly on Streisand’s lines. Now that I would pay to hear.

Tracey Thorn’s latest book, “Naked at the Albert Hall”, is newly published by Virago

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 06 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Power Struggle

Terry Notary's simian appearance as performance artist Oleg in The Square
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Ruben Östlund’s film The Square hammers home the point that we are all still animals

 Each thread and simian guest star shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive.

Yasmina Reza’s play Art, about three friends whose closeness is threatened when one of them spends a fortune on an entirely white painting, offered audiences a series of packaged talking points (Does objective taste exist? What is art?) for their post-theatre meal. Ruben Östlund’s film The Square, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year, serves the same function. Before the first scene is over, the Stockholm curator Christian (Claes Bang), a vision of metropolitan spiffiness in his red-framed glasses, has already wondered whether an ordinary bag placed in a gallery would qualify as art. In his current exhibition is a room filled with piles of gravel. A visitor pokes his head in, decides there’s nothing worth investigating, then leaves. We’ve all done it.

Like the canvas in Reza’s play, there is a catalyst for disorder here: the blue neon square set into the gallery’s courtyard. It is conceived as “a sanctuary of trust and caring” but its arrival throws everyone’s behaviour into sharp relief. A woman screams for help as she is pursued by an unseen aggressor, prompting everyone around her to become more than usually engrossed in their phones. Charity workers ask commuters whether they would like to save a human life, only to be given the brush-off. Christian’s relationship with poverty is squeamish. He buys a sandwich for a homeless woman. “No onions,” she says. “Pick them out yourself,” he snaps, incredulous to find that beggars can also be choosers.

His downfall, which starts after he hatches a cockamamie scheme to retrieve his stolen wallet and phone by leafleting the housing estate where he believes the thieves are hiding, is the thread on which the film’s provocative episodes are hung. Each one, such as the gallery chef flying into a rage because no one wants to hear about his balsamic reduction, shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive. A series of simian guest stars, real and pretend, make cameo appearances to hammer home the point that we are all still animals, no matter how many private views we attend. These include the performance artist Oleg (Terry Notary), whose confrontational appearance imitating an ape at a black-tie dinner – not just scene-stealing but film-stealing – exposes the instincts of the herd to conform, even if that means ignoring violence taking place at the next table.

That sequence crystallises ideas that in other parts of the film feel distinctly wishy-washy. Jibes about pretentious artists (a cameo from Dominic West) or crass advertising executives smack of the contrived bugbears of clickbait columnists – what next, jokes about quinoa served on slates? And a section of the film about a bad-taste campaign to promote the neon square will seem penetrating only to viewers who have never considered that ad agencies might stir up controversy for publicity purposes.

Östlund is sharper when he focuses on the discord beneath everyday social interactions, using sound and camerawork to disrupt supposedly simple scenes. He prefers when shooting a conversation, for instance, to linger too long on one participant, rather than cutting back and forth between them, so that we begin to interrogate and mistrust the face we’re looking at. Stand-offs between Christian and the journalist Anne (Elisabeth Moss), including an excruciating argument over a condom, show this technique at its most blissfully torturous.

He is a director who is never more comfortable than when he is making audiences squirm, as he did in Force Majeure, in which a man neglects his family but not his phone when fleeing danger. But the situation in The Square, which escalates to the point where Christian must ignore a child’s suffering in order to safeguard his own existence, would have greater moral force if the film showed any interest in its poorer characters as something other than lightning rods for middle-class complacency.

The Square is undeniably entertaining, though its lasting use may be to demonstrate that movies can have the same effect as popping a coin in the collecting tin. Having seen the film, you can rest easy knowing you’ve already given. You’ve done your guilt for this week.

The Square (15)
dir: Ruben Östlund

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game