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Songs of Mourning [1997] by Angus Fontaine (Daily Telegraph) Print E-mail
Sunday, 13 August 2006

Heaven or hell? Nick Cave can't choose. For so long, Cave has seemed committed to the latter. Long bouts of heroin addiction, albums full of blood and lust.

Crow-like, slack-shouldered, Cave seethes from his album covers, his harrowed eyes a tardis into a stormy past.

Hell-bent he seemed and the music reflected it. Cave's last album Murder Ballads, was beautiful and funny and sick all at once. The lonely death of a woman who had never seen the sea, babies murdered in their cribs and a raucous saloon massacre where the body count ends at 37. But in between the crimson carnival of that album and now, much has happened to the dark prince of rock 'n' roll.

The Boatman's Call, Cave's 10th album with The Bad Seeds, is a sober, sobering experience. Sparsely instrumental and reverentially sung, it's love and loss delivered with candour.

This is Cave in mourning. Eulogising the death of his marriage and the love affair that followed.

After six years of wedlock and a son together, Cave divorced Viviane Carneiro early last year. He then fell in love with singer Polly Harvey. The affair burned itself out within 12 months.

Cave has admitted in the past to deliberately sabotaging his relationships ("It's become very clear I don't choose the right people" is his blunt appraisal) but it's been a grieving saboteur at work of late.

Alone in his London home, Cave looked deep within himself. In the past he had purged himself in a variety of ways, skewing off with customary passion and disregard for self-preservation.

He acted (Ghosts of the Civil Dead, Wings of Desire), wrote film scores (To Have and To Hold for which he won this year's best soundtrack ARIA) and wrote poetry (the two King Ink volumes) and novels (his 1987 epic And The Ass Saw The Angel).

But this time, Cave gave the wounding and healing game a title, The Boatman's Call.

"Love is a state that I would like to exist in continuously," he says. "But I know the potential of pain in love. It really is like a drug, lifting you out of the mediocre world and putting you in a state of inspiration and imagination where everything outside is meaningless. The intention of writing this record was to get to the truth of what was going on in these relationships."

Cave is famous for the primal exertion he puts into his live shows but touring The Boatman's Call has taken its toll.

"These are very difficult songs to sing. They were written in a period between being very happy and in love, and everything falling apart. Strangely, they were recorded in an order very close to the way things happened. There are a lot of painful moments on stage. There's a different feeling behind them, one that's allowed me to lose myself in the music. That's the thing I've loved. In the past it's been very much to do with the music and the concentration, but these songs, they genuinely do transcend you in some way. You drive yourself into a state that lifts you above what is mundane in life, where time passes differently. I love that." Cave's long-term co-conspirators, the Bad Seeds - Mick Harvey, Blixa Bargeld, Thomas Wydler, Conway Savage and Martyn P. Casey - have been moved by their leader's public outpourings.

"It's been very meaningful for all of us," Cave says. "We had to go right back to the drawing board for this tour. We knew we had to do something totally different to anything we've done before and I think we've succeeded. I've been incredibly proud of the tour so far. These songs required a lot of concentration and they had to be very concentrated, very sober performances to work. They were musically so naked that loss of focus would ruin them."

Australian audiences can expect to see Cave stuck behind a piano for the best part of these performances, bleakly balladeering as he did on his watershed album, The Good Son.

"I hadn't written anything for months after we did this record," Cave says. "I felt I'd written the album I wanted to about the only subjects I'm interested in: love and God. I convinced myself I was never going to be able to write another song. But that was bullshit. I find as long as I can remain open, the songs will come. They'll be given to me."

Now the big question.

"Yes, I believe in God," he answers calmly. "I think I always have. I believe that these things we're talking about come from God. My responsibility as an artist is to turn up at the page or the piano or the microphone. The rest is up to God."

Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds play the State Theatre next Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Tickets for all shows are sold out.

 

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