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4 May 2023

The conservatism of Nick Cave

Many were surprised when the musician announced he would be attending King Charles III’s coronation. They shouldn’t have been.

By Fergal Kinney

Across the last decade Nick Cave – in his recorded output with the Bad Seeds – has achieved the rarest of things, a genuine late career creative renaissance. On Push the Sky Away, Skeleton Tree and 2019’s expansive and pained Ghosteen, the Australian born songwriter dramatically abandoned his former fidelity to traditional song structures and pushed towards something more elliptical, closer to modernist writing in its fragmentation and eschewing of traditional narrative. They are three of the finest albums of Cave’s four-decade career.

Cave the public figure has undergone another kind of evolution. This week, some were surprised at the 65-year-old’s revelation that he will be attending the coronation of King Charles III, saying he “hold(s) an inexplicable emotional attachment to the royals”. Surprised? You shouldn’t be. In the politics he espouses and the manner in which he embraces his Christian faith, Cave has for some time been a conservative and sometimes establishment figure.

In late middle-age, Nick Cave has embraced a new openness in the aftermath of the death of his teenage son Arthur in 2015. Cave answers fan questions – often on current affairs, creativity and spirituality – through his popular newsletter and website the Red Hand Files, which he started in 2018. Faith, Hope and Carnage, a bestselling book of conversations between Cave and the Observer writer Seán O’Hagan, was published last year.

[See also: Nick Cave: “I don’t think art should be in the hands of the virtuous”]

Speaking to the postliberal publication UnHerd this year, Cave pointed out – fairly – that he was never “against the establishment” and was more interested in “fucking with people on a different kind of level”. Asked how to do that in 2023, Cave quickly responded, “You be a conservative… you go to church and be a conservative.”

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Cave writes regularly on his dislike of political correctness and woke culture which he has attacked for its “self-righteous belief” and “lack of humility”. He has called it “bad religion” and “mercy’s antithesis”. Better that we “engage openly in free-ranging conversation – an expansion of collective discovery toward a common good.” He has conflated Antifa with the far-right, applying the horseshoe theory beloved of conservatives to an organisation that barely exists outside the US right’s imagination. Writing about his self-defined centrist politics earlier this year, Cave argued that centrists “feel freer, less restricted, less dogmatised, less bigoted. We see the world as essentially mysterious, often mystical, and we are humbled by it.” Cave’s magical moderation – curiously unspecific in its borders and definitions, allies or policies – can read like the worst excesses of liberal self-congratulation, unhumbled by the global populism of the last decade. Likewise his critiques of what he perceives to be censorious young activists almost never move past cancel culture generalities.

This high mindedness has sometimes been criticised for inconsistency. In 2018 Cave called the cultural boycott of Israel “cowardly and shameful”, arguing that to perform in a state did not mean endorsement of that state’s politics, only to be accused of a double standard, to the disadvantage of Palestinians, when he promptly dropped concerts in Russia following the invasion of Ukraine.

[See also: Catherine Lacey’s biography that isn’t]

Since at least the 1990s Cave has identified publicly as a Christian. Religious iconography became the motor of his grandest songs; the face of Jesus appeared in his soup during his early masterpiece “The Mercy Seat”. Suddenly, it was all across his work, like the stately “Brompton Oratory” and the hymnal, consensus modern classic “Into My Arms”. This expanded into a philosophy, most notably in his celebrated 1996 lecture on faith for BBC Radio 3, The Flesh Made Word. Recently, Cave has been interviewed for the Sunday Times by the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, who described Faith, Hope and Carnage as “an absolutely wonderful book. I don’t think I’ve ever read so integrated and searching an engagement with how faith works, how creativity works, and how grief is bound up with both.” Far from being surprising that Cave might appear at the Coronation, it’s easy to see how the singer aligns with Charles’s event, with its emphasis on faith and permitting non-Christian religious figures to play a prominent role for the first time.

In 2019 I watched Cave – four short years after the death of his son – fielding audience questions on grief at an in-conversation event at Bridgewater Hall in Manchester. The questions asked were often messy and raw – sometimes uncomfortably so – but Cave handled them all with patience and grace. It will be a long time before I forget seeing the singer last year bring Primavera Festival to unprecedented silence as he performed the searing 2016 track “I Need You”, dedicating the song to his son Jethro Cave, who had died aged 31 mere weeks previously. For whatever reason, musicians embracing conservative ideas usually tends to accompany creative decline or a tightening of the spirit – see Morrissey’s trudging nostalgia or Van Morrison’s exhausting Covid denialism. This has not been the case with Cave.

Cave is a complex public figure and one of the finest living songwriters and performers, even if the poetic truths in his work do not cohere to political truths or arguments. And as he takes his seat at Westminster Abbey on Saturday, it will be neither weird nor strange to see the singer among the global dignitaries, assorted aristocrats and religious leaders. More than he may realise, Cave should fit right in.

[See also: Rescuing conservatism]

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