Once asked by a fan whether he had “reached the same highs” since getting clean, Nick Cave recounted the lows of drug use: “bashed up in police stations, dehumanised in rehabs, near-death experiences, suicidal thoughts, routine overdoses” – even “liking Charles Bukowski”.
In view of this, it is one of the more improbable twists in music history that Cave turns 65 on 22 September. Just as importantly, the Australian songwriter is creatively alive. While many of his contemporaries have become mere nostalgia acts or caricatures (Morrissey, Bono), Cave has recently produced two of the most acclaimed albums of his 43-year recording career: Ghosteen (2019) with his band the Bad Seeds and Carnage (2021). Both are richly arranged studio creations that owe more to classical and electronic influences than to guitar rock. But Cave remains a talismanic live performer. In August, I saw him headline London’s All Points East festival where he agelessly dived into the crowd, whipping his fans into a rapture, then moved them to tears at his piano.
Cave has long defied the traditional boundaries of a musical career. As well as 24 studio albums under various guises, he has written novels, screenplays and an introduction to the Gospel of Mark. He has scored numerous films, starred in a movie with Brad Pitt (Johnny Suede in 1991) and even dabbles in ceramics.
What accounts for this late-career zenith? This ceaseless striving for immortality? Answers emerge in Faith, Hope and Carnage, a remarkably candid new book based on more than 40 hours of conversation between Cave and the journalist Seán O’Hagan from 2020-21.
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The exchanges are the culmination of a prolonged and moving period of reflection. On 14 July 2015, Cave’s life changed irrevocably when his 15-year-old son Arthur died after falling from a cliff near the family’s home in Brighton. (His eldest son, Jethro, died unexpectedly aged 31 in May of this year.) In the days after Arthur’s death, Cave told Warren Ellis, his chief collaborator, “The music and the work are the only things that have saved me in the past… I need to work.”
The result was Skeleton Tree (2016), an eerily beautiful album whose prophetic character haunted Cave (“You fell from the sky, crash-landed in a field near the River Adur,” runs the opening of “Jesus Alone”, a song written before Arthur’s death). Ghosteen, the yet more numinous record that followed, was for Cave a “way of making contact again and saying goodbye”.
Post-traumatic growth – a psychological concept developed in the 1990s – is the term that best captures Cave’s experience. In Faith, Hope and Carnage, he speaks of how individuals can emerge from cataclysmic events as “a different person, a changed, more complete, more realised, more clearly drawn person. I think that’s what it is to live, really – to die in a way and to be reborn”. Cave did not achieve this in isolation. Rather, he relied on three key individuals.
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The first, perhaps unexpectedly, is God. Cave has long drawn on the Bible for literary purposes but his engagement with religion has lately acquired a more personal dimension. “As I’ve gotten older, I have also come to see that maybe the search is the religious experience,” he reflects. “The desire to believe and the longing for meaning, the moving towards the ineffable… Perhaps God is the search itself.” One of Cave’s greatest skills is to bring a secular eye to the religious and a religious eye to the secular, the sacred and the profane intertwined.
The second individual on whom Cave depends is Ellis, an extravagantly gifted multi-instrumentalist and composer perhaps only rivalled by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood in popular music. It was on the Bad Seeds album Push the Sky Away (2013), written with Ellis, that Cave achieved a musical rebirth. “Jubilee Street”, with its majestic strings, has become the most transcendent song in the band’s live repertoire.
Finally, there is Cave’s wife of 23 years, Susie. After his break-up with the singer-songwriter PJ Harvey – charted on the Bad Seeds record The Boatman’s Call (1997) – Susie, a fashion designer known for her label The Vampire’s Wife, gifted Cave an emotional reawakening. Two years after they met, he left rehab for the final time. They wed on the day of the solar eclipse in 1999 at a medieval chapel in Surrey.
Behind these individuals stands Cave’s committed fan base. Perhaps no major artist has a more direct relationship with their followers. Cave rarely gives interviews and has no social media. But on his website The Red Hand Files, he responds to questions eccentric (“Have you ever met Nicolas Cage?”) and existential (“How do I stop fearing the end of the world?”).
“Music is a spiritual currency unlike any other in its ability to transport people out of their suffering,” he explains. “I don’t take my job lightly.” Most musicians, at this stage of their career, are trading on past glories; Cave is forging new ones.
[See also: Nick Cave interview: “I don’t think art should be in the hands of the virtuous”]
This article appears in the 21 Sep 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Going for broke