A journey through Nick Cave’s songwriting in 10 of his greatest lyrics
Nick Cave has got all sorts of different songs, and all those all sorts have different sorts of lines. It is in these lyrics that tie the disparate back catalogue together and hold the corpse-jarring quintessence of the spookiest man in rock music.
To tread into the murky lyrical swamplands, and go spelunking into the depths of Cave and emerge clutching only ten singular lines is a daunting act of daring. Firstly, he’s placed more stellar lines in songs, over a career that now spans six decades, than most poets could ever wish to merely cross their minds. Secondly, those songs are often so full of meaning, leaning on each line before and after, that to pluck out just one line is an uncomfortable act of mutilation for the sake of comfortable consumption.
As Cave said himself, in his weekly forum ‘The Red Hand Files’ regarding the BBC censorship of The Pogues classic ‘Fairytale of New York’: “The idea that a word or line, in a song can simply be changed for another and not do it significant damage is a notion that can only be upheld by those that know nothing about the fragile nature of songwriting.” As Chris Morris once said, this quote serves as, “proof, if proof be need be”, of the rightfully esteemed regard in which Cave holds the delicate act of lyric writing and how important it is that any given line fits in with the whole. Reassuringly, however, he went on to single out the opener for ‘Fairytale’ and states that it is “one of the greatest opening lines ever written”.
Therefore, one enters Cave’s museum (or perhaps odditorium) of song, marvel at the wildly varied artefacts, nonetheless exhibits fittingly bound under the same roof by shared singular stylings, and, as we journey, we shall see what links the real gems together. What better place to start than an opening line.
Nick Cave’s best lyrics:
The Opening Line – ‘Into My Arms’, The Boatman’s Call
“I don’t believe in an interventionist God / But I know darling that you do”
In 1999, Nick Cave delivered a lecture on love songs in which he dusted off and donned the old Spanish word ‘Duende’, which was defined by poet and (perhaps) purely platonic love interest of Salvador Dali, Frederico Garcia Lorca, as exalted emotion unearthed from within, “a mysterious force that everyone feels and no philosopher has explained. The roots that cling to the mire from which comes the very substance of art.”
Those are some very grand words, but though dignified and humble, ‘Into My Arms’, is a very grand song, with an unmistakable dose of Duende. There is undoubtedly no finer way to express heightened emotion than to invoke the divine from the very outset.
In the literary tradition of a first-line that brands our sensibilities with a maxim from which we can measure the rest of the words that unfurl, he conjures up God, love and a difference, that shows the gently duplicitous nature of faith in both guises. By pairing God and love together, he declares not only the extent of his devotion, but a departure from self-sovereignty to something bigger and better than himself, a wholeness that bridges opinion and faith, and he does this all from the very outset.
‘Into My Arms’ is a tender love song, unique not only in its singularity but also its near unrivalled power, with surely one of the most memorable and touching openers in music. Like ‘Hallelujah’, this says to all other would-be love songs – ‘why bother?’.
Literary Placement – ‘There She Goes, My Beautiful World’, Abattoir Blues / The Lyre of Orpheus
“John Willmot penned his poetry riddled with the pox / Nabakov wrote on index cards, at a lectern, in his socks”
If there has been a more literary songwriter than Cave, then I haven’t heard them. The fact that he has published two full-length novels and an epic poem, along with an assortment of other literary contributions is testament to this. Not that he’s the only songsmith to delve from the songsheet into printed word, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and his close friend and collaborator Patti Smith, have all done it to name but a few. However, nobody I can think of has ever leant on the world of literature quite as frequently, frankly, and fastidiously as Nick Cave.
Whether it be subtle hat-tips to Philip Larkin, commandeering Miltonian constructs for ‘Red Right Hand’ and ‘Song of Joy’, justified Charles Bukowski bashing on ‘Call Upon the Author’, or rattling off the ailing great and good from Willmot to Thomas in the aforementioned ‘There She Goes My Beautiful World,’ the bookshelf is never far from the back catalogue when it comes to Nick Cave.
With such common invocation of literature throughout his albums, the songs are placed among something wider; they are the distillment of the art which colours Cave’s world. Rather than diminish the magnitude of the songs by placing their singularity amidst multitudes, it actually aggrandises them with depth and helps craft a world for them to live in.
‘There She Goes My Beautiful World,’ expresses the fact that hardship is ever-present but so is beauty, and in fact, it is from this hardship that beauty can spring forth like the Pox riddled poetry of Willmot.
Dark Humour – ‘O’Malley’s Bar’, Murder Ballads
“I jammed the barrel under her chin / and her face looked raw and vicious / her head it landed in the sink with all the dirty dishes”
Nick Cave said himself, “Despite what people may think I’m not interested in being dark all the time,” and despite what people may think even at his most macabre he very rarely is. Testimony to this abating of darkness in ‘the vampires’ songs’ is the fact that when it comes to jet-black comedic lines, there’s a plethora to choose from. This particular effort just happens to be amongst the most stand-out.
To complete the quote above, Cave went on to say, “I’m actually searching for some kind of light and I’m very happy when I achieve that.” Whether the light amidst the darkness is an injection of poetical hope or pithy humour, it always embellishes the song. When it comes to the jabs of his sniping whit, it elevates the track not just through counterpoint but because along with maybe Courtney Barnett, Alex Turner and Randy Newman, he’s one of the few serious songwriters who can genuinely raise a chuckle.
Brutal Honesty – ‘Mutiny In Heaven’, Mutiny / The Bad Seeds
“Ah tied on… perched on the end of my bed ah was / Sticken a needle in mah arm / Ah tied off! Fuckin wings burst out mah back”
In the docu-drama 20,000 Days on Earth, Cave declares that the ’80s were a pretty difficult decade for him to remember. It seems incredulous to someone like me, where one weekend of blackout drunkenness results in days on end of sit-down showers, that someone could live through such sustained debauchery that it all just slipped right by and come out the other side functioning. In the ’80s, Cave wrote the novel The Ass Saw The Angel, released three albums with The Birthday Party, formed The Bad Seeds and subsequently released their first five records, and appeared in the movie Wings of Desire, along with a myriad of other outputs, and no-thanks to excessive substance abuse it all passed him in a haze.
It is, however, thoroughly preserved in song. Whether it be through detailing heroin use or mercilessly revealing the particulars of his relationships, Cave is always present in his songs. This honesty adds authenticity to his work, and it embalms it in a sort of personal miasma that is, by turns, uncomfortable in its stark revealing, and by contrast comforting in its frank relatability that even The Vampire is fallible.
The lyrics of ‘Mutiny in Heaven’ are a testament to the fact that I don’t use the word ‘brutal’ superfluously when I describe the type of honesty he displays (see also ‘The Sorrowful Wife’ for a softer shade of unnerving honesty).
As he said himself at the close of the ’80s, “I no longer need to escape my past. I’m proud I survived.” That same defiance of moving on whilst probing, curiously, at the past, emboldens his songs with a heartfelt truth.
Bold Imagery – ‘Stagger Lee’, The Murder Ballads
“She saw the barkeep, said ‘O God he can’t be dead!’ / Stag said, ‘Well just count the holes in the mother fuckers head!’”
There is no award for ‘most pretentious online music writer’ because it would be like championing a grain of sand as the most sandy at the beach, and thus I feel suitably liberated to divulge the following, as you listen to ‘Stagger Lee’, the visceral imagery is so palpable that you also watch it in the theatre of your imagination.
Whilst you swallow your cringe-induced vomit, do me a favour and try to deny the fact you fire off every gunshot blast in that song with a little cocked finger pistol.
Whether it be the swinging saloon doors or the bucking horses outside, there’s a lot in this song (as with all of Cave’s narrative pieces) that isn’t actually explicitly mentioned in the lyrics. There’s an entire world trapped in that tune.
It’s like Bob Dylan said, “The folk singers could sing songs like an entire book but only in a few verses,” and though Nick Cave, like Bowie, is too varied and sui generis to ever tie down to a genre other than ‘avant-garde’, you’d have to say that folktale tradition could be applied quite nicely to Cave. Only when it comes to The Bad Seeds, there’s a lot more than just the narrative of a story conveyed in those verses.
With this one sick bit of acid-tongued wit, the unhinged outlaw character of ‘Stagger Lee’ is formed. It is his actions that drive the story of the song, but with his vulgarity and dark humour in tow, he happens to be more three-dimensional than most blockbusters achieve with their characters in two hours.
Thanks to the imagery of Cave’s words along with the atmosphere created by The Bad Seeds music craft, this is part song part debauched Tarantino western, as many other of his songs are crooked realms fit for other directors.
One of A Kind – ‘Palaces of Montezuma’, Grinderman 2
“The Spinal Cord of JFK / Wrapped in Marilyn Monroe’s negligee”
Could such a line have come from any other artist? The song itself avoids all sorts of cliched love offerings. He’s not talking about a roof over a head, a ring on a finger and plenty happy-ever-afters, he’s talking about the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and Miles Davis.
On its most basic level, it’s a simple love song, but the rolling offerings of unusual this, that, and the others perk up a jarring interest beyond the catchy melody, none more so than this arresting couplet. It’s his classic jarring style that demands to be listened to, and like so many of his lines, you’d only have to see it written down to know who’s going to be singing it.
“I mean: he never asked to be raised up from the tomb / I mean: no one ever actually asked him to forsake his dreams”
The last 100 years have seen pop culture largely secularised, which makes it an unusual consideration that many of the best song and screenwriters (i.e. the Coen Brothers), have always had, if not full-blown religious, then certainly spiritual overtones. I’m not sure exactly what the heavy presence of God and religion imbues their work with, but it certainly adds something.
I suppose on its most basic level, with ‘three thousand years of beautiful tradition from Moses to Sandy Koufax’, it’s a solid shortcut to aggrandisement. Whether it adds profundity or uncertainty, some sort of God usually pervades over Cave’s work.
He admits that, by design, in his songwriting world he needs a sort of God figure to preside over everything, and that God at the tip of his pen is “is a work in progress.” God is not just this construct of judgement and uncertainty in his songs; they’re also rife with human dogma, religious iconography and biblical references. Cave’s obsession stretches right back, he says, “I was reading the bible a lot in my early 20’s, mostly the Old Testament, just because I was knocked out by the language and the stories…it was kind of thrilling and titillated something in me at the time.”
That titillation permeates his writing, adding interest and painting Lazarus as some sort of hippy beat poet in ‘Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!’ is a fine example of this.
Pack a Punch – ‘Jubilee Street’, Push The Sky Away
“I’m transforming / I am vibrating / Look at me now”
Ultimately there’s too much depth to his songwriting to be neatly summarised, but all this demurring would be totally incomplete if it didn’t state that it also kicks like a mule. Any Nick Cave live show is a topsy-turvy trip, from soft and sweet to hard and heavy. When he yells “Look at me now!” by Christ are you looking! It’s like he really is transforming, and you can almost feel it. There is palpable exultation going on during the crescendo of ‘Jubilee Street’, and you get swept up in it.
The ‘banal and jejune’ ‘constituency of the moon’ that he laments in ‘Call Upon the Author’ is reflected in the satire of his work but never actually present, once he gets going he tears any banality asunder and then some! “I live for performing,” he says, “it’s that moment I can be that person I’ve always wanted to be.” Not to besmirch any other songwriters, but even with the great ones there is sometimes a detectable notion of contentment to let their work live as a little studio masterpiece in the craft of songwriting. But with Cave, the songs always seem to yearn for a life outside themselves, and this enshrouds them in a certain performative energy.
Whether it’s a tender love ballad or a narrative depiction of some crimson handed demagogue, all the songs have great gusto, and none more so than ‘Jubilee Street’.
To the Heart – ‘Ghosteen Speaks’, Ghosteen
“I am beside you”
There is never a sense that Cave’s pen is ever strained for words, ‘O’Malley’s Bar’ is a song measurable by the word count of a short story, but in his work, there are rarely any more words than there needs to be. When concision is best, he gets to the heart of it.
Speaking about the loss of his son, Arthur Cave, Nick wrote, “Language falls short before the immensity of grief,” adding, “One desperate morning […] I called upon my son by name […] I said ‘you are my son and you are beside me’.”
In the song ‘Ghosteen Speaks’ those four little words, “I am beside you”, hold the weight of all language, but emboldened by the lightness of the music and empowered by the actualised release from boundless grief, they soar transcendently, and four simple words bring comfort to those that need it most. They embody the cathartic and spiritual power of music that Cave has harnessed and sheltered throughout his records.
The Last Line – ‘The Mercy Seat’, Tender Prey
“But I’m afraid I told a lie”
I once sent ‘The Mercy Seat’ to someone who hadn’t heard it before, and they got back to me saying ‘wow the words and lines just keep coming and coming,’ it’s an accurate assessment, and they all culminate in the last. After the avalanche of words that tumble and tumble on top of each other, comes the final little punchline; “I told a lie.”
His assertion, that in song no word is dispensable, proves true right to the last. It goes beyond a clever twist and delivers finality to a song about just that. The mercy of God is never far away, but neither is his judgement. It ties up the masterpiece with a deft little blow.
Interestingly, however, Cave omitted the line from the live rendition of his July release Idiot Player so maybe he’s not quite as fond of it as I am. Everything is a work in progress.