Nick Cave’s Idiot Prayer: stately hymns for the age of the solitude

The musician’s isolated Alexandra Palace show resembled a private rehearsal or a post-apocalyptic performance.

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Perhaps no living musician enjoys a more intimate connection with their fans than Nick Cave. His live concerts are less gigs than transcendental experiences, with the 62-year-old as shaman. At pivotal moments, his lithe frame balanced on scaffolding, he will grip an enraptured fan in search of catharsis.

In the age of social distancing, such images now resemble scenes not just from a different year but from a different era. Cave, whose once-underground band the Bad Seeds now sell out arenas, has been denied the biggest audience of his career.

But the Australian – novelist, actor, screenwriter, raconteur, troubadour – was swift to grasp the creative potential of this moment. A month ago, he was filmed alone at London’s ornate Alexandra Palace (Cave lives in Brighton) with a grand piano for accompaniment.

On 23 July, the resulting footage was streamed worldwide to fans as part of a ticketed event. The film, Idiot Prayer: Nick Cave Alone At Alexandra Palace, forms part of a loose trilogy with 20,000 Days on Earth (2014), a semi-fictionalised depiction of Cave’s life, and One More Time with Feeling (2016), a documentary on the recording of his album Skeleton Tree in the aftermath of the death of his 15-year-old son Arthur.

That tragic event leant new pathos to Cave’s work, and further deepened his relationship with his fans. He created a website, “The Red Hand Files”, on which he publishes eloquent responses to reader’s questions, and embarked on a speaking tour. It was this that provided the inspiration for Idiot Prayer: “I loved playing deconstructed versions of my songs at these shows, distilling them to their essential forms,” Cave recalled.

In a world convulsed by Covid-19, there is something immediately reassuring about the unmistakable sight of Cave: back-combed jet-black hair, impeccably tailored dark suit. He is one of the few performers still recognisable from their silhouette alone.

Cave’s 90-minute set opens with “Idiot Prayer”, a mournful cry of human futility. The song is taken from his 1997 piano-laden album The Boatman’s Call, a lament for the end of his relationship with the singer PJ Harvey. Here it is repurposed as an elegy for the world we have collectively lost (providing six of the evening’s 21 songs).

Throughout the set, lyrics acquire new resonances: “Don’t touch me,” Cave pleads repeatedly in “Girl in Amber”. “It’s alright for some,” he snarls in “Brompton Oratory”. “You’re so far from me, way across some cold neurotic sea,” he sings in “Far From Me”.

Cave’s stately baritone feels made for these times. As he sits alone at the piano in the immensity of Alexandra Palace, casually discarding sheet music, the show resembles a private rehearsal (or a post-apocalyptic performance); Cave is alone with everybody. At the end of an exquisite rendition of “(Are You) The One That I’ve Been Waiting For?”, he chuckles, as if off-camera, after hitting a wrong note. 

Perhaps surprisingly, only two songs from Cave’s acclaimed 2019 album Ghosteen feature (“Waiting For You” and the closing “Galleon Ship”), but the set is as rich as any fan could reasonably hope: something old (two songs from his 1986 album Your Funeral... My Trial), something borrowed (reworkings of tracks by his absurdist side project Grinderman) and something new (the debut of “Euthanasia”),

The novelist Julian Barnes once remarked: “I don't believe in God, but I miss him”; Cave’s relationship with the celestial mirrors this philosophy. Though he is not a formal believer, his songs are infused with religious symbolism and a yearning for the numinous.

Two of Idiot Prayer's highlights draw from this well. The overpowering “The Mercy Seat” depicts a man awaiting execution by the electric chair: “In a way I’m hoping/To be done with all this weighing up of truth/An eye for an eye/And a tooth for a tooth/And I’ve got nothing left to lose/And I’m not afraid to die.” As Cave pounds the piano, as if racing against death, it is transformed into a whirlwind disquisition on human mortality. (“I don't feel as cocky about death as I used to,” Cave has said. “I wake up in mad panics about death approaching.”)

Then there is “Into My Arms”, one of the finest love songs ever crafted, which Cave performed at the funeral of INXS singer Michael Hutchence in 1997 and at that of Jack Merritt, a victim of the 2019 London Bridge terror attack. Though to be originally addressed to Harvey, here the song feels more like a plea for collective protection: “I don't believe in the existence of angels/But looking at you I wonder if that's true/But if I did I would summon them together/And ask them to watch over you.”

At the show’s close, Cave strides silently towards a sun-streamed room, as if ascending to heaven. As the screen goes dark, the spell of intimacy is broken. A call for an encore would be an “Idiot Prayer” of its own: one of gratitude that such a performer exists, combined with a gnawing sense of what we have lost.

George Eaton is senior online editor of the New Statesman.

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