Nick Cave: Adult Dementia

Are you happy, friend? Have you made peace in your soul with the mind-numbing routine and blank, incessant drone of workaday life? Have you packed up your dreams like so much childhood rubbish, crushed beneath the weight of years in the darkest corner of a small, locked closet, forgotten?

No you say? Well take heart, for the Great Magna Mater, Mother Earth, did spew forth one Nicholas Edward Cave some 50-odd-years hence from the furnace of her loins to give voice to your stagnant heart and succor to those poor, curdled dreams.

Or at least give those of us well past our troubled teens a good laugh as we whistle past the graveyard.

Nick Cave may be the first truly adult rock star, the only musician to emerge from the hell-broth of post-punk mayhem with the will and talent to face up to middle age with humor, malice and, most importantly, imagination fully intact. Cave, seemingly without precedent and certainly without peer, now draws from a well of themes that deal almost exclusively with life eons removed from the spasmodic roil of youth and celebrity that dominates much modern music. That he’s addressed these themes while losing none of his music’s visceral immediacy or lyrical sweep is not only heartening, but down right inspiring, for myself and, I would hope, any other sentient creature struggling to come to grips with the daily warfare of the heart-murdering world we’ve all had a hand in creating — the daily routines and vicious inanity of adulthood.

Alone among his contemporaries, Cave seems to have grasped that, for anyone with the guts to look it in the eye, the banalities of the everyday world contain far more horror and loathsome humor than any teenage paranoid dreamscape. Taking in with a wink and a nod the inherent selfish imbecility of the human species, Cave and his merry troop of black-eyed minstrels have crafted a music that draws the poison of this world and alchemizes it into a cracked and blistered balm for the senses and the soul.

It’s damn un-American, what this man has done. While siphoning much of his muse from the swamps, brothels, and juke joints of the country’s mythic South, Cave has subverted America’s systemic youth worship, turning it in on itself and contorting it to the demands of a musical universe that makes room for both corrupt sophistication and id-drenched, babbling foolishness; the book worm and the berserker.

As he’s grown older, you can almost hear his chronological age catching up to his musical ambitions. A man who claims he never felt young, Cave managed to pull out of a mid-career malaise (see Nocturama) with the release of “Abattoir Blues/ The Lyre of Orpheus” in 2004, completing his transformation from doom-shrouded goth-punk into his current incarnation as a priest of middle-aged discontent and ancient, febrile yearnings. A double album cascading with brutal humor and depthless sadness, it evinces the full-blown flowering of themes, musical as well as lyrical, that had been explored in earlier albums such as “The Boatman’s Call,” and “No More Shall We Part.”

On those albums, Cave delved with relish into an investigation of what could be described as the “Horror of the Outside/Other.” Time and again our narrator is faced with viscous neighbors, indifferent wives, and strangers seething with bizarre, possibly hostile intent.

In one of the funniest, most disconcerting songs of his career, “Oh My Lord,” Cave relates what may well be a summation of his own mid-life crisis. After fending off charges of artistic impotence from his unruly neighbors, he assuages his own doubts by striking the pose of the misunderstood artist with destiny on his side, guiding him beyond the rabble’s crass opinions and shallow tastes.  Later, a trip to the barber turns into an odyssey of nightmarish misunderstanding.

“Now I’m at the hairdresser’s
People watch me as they move past
A guy wearing plastic antlers
Presses his bum against the glass
Now I’m down on my hands and knees
And it’s so fucking hot!
Someone cries, “What are you looking for?”
I scream, “The plot, the plot!”
I grab my telephone, I call my wife at home
She screams, “Leave us alone!” I say “Hey, it’s only me”
The hairdresser with his scissors, he holds up the mirror
I look back and shiver; I can’t even believe what I can see”

This scene also explores a notion running through much of Cave’s more recent work: namely that, just beneath the surface, the everyday world is rife with phantasmagoric oddity. Not dissimilar in insight to Carlos Castaneda’s summation of “The Teachings of Don Juan” in which the ordinary and the non-ordinary are exposed as corollaries of one another, overlapping, merging and informing each other. With a slight adjustment of vision, a hair-tick to the left-of-center, a trip to the grocery store becomes a descent into Hades, or a romp through a carnival freak show (I’m reminded of a man I recently observed walking out of a local supermarket with a plastic bag over his head.) A walk in your backyard transforms into an adventure through a world of cubist shadows scored to an aria of insects and oversexed amphibians. In this world imagination is simply another form of perception, like sonar.

In “Darker with the Day” Cave relates a simple stroll downtown as painted by Horonymous Bosch. Caught between love and rage, he intertwines a sense of awe at the world’s natural beauty with images of mass imbecility and planetary disdain for the human species.

“I passed by your garden, saw you with your flowers
The magnolias, camellias and azaleas so sweet
And I stood there invisible in the panicking crowds
You looked so beautiful in the rising heat
I smell smoke, see little fires bursting on the lawns
People carry on regardless, listening to their hands
Great cracks appear in the pavement, the earth yawns
Bored and disgusted, to do us down”

It’s exceedingly strange subject matter for Rock and Roll, a form that Cave professes the utmost reverence for. While affirming the music’s life altering power, he’s also taken from Rock’s very finest practitioners the lesson that there are no rules to this game other than the ones imposed by the songsmith’s talent and depth of perception.

The inevitability of loss churns its way to the surface in this music time and again. True sadness, palpable and clinging like fog, is rare in music of any form, but Cave captures it perfectly in “Where Do We Go Now But Nowhere” from “The Boatman’s Call.”

“From the balcony we watched the carnival band
The crack of the drum a little child did scare
I can still feel his tiny fingers pressed in my hand
O where do we go now but nowhere

If I could relive one day of my life
If I could relive just a single one
You on the balcony, my future wife
Oh, who could have known, but no one”

In its images of adult mourning and regret, it calls to mind the song “Sara” by one of Cave’s musical touchstones, Bob Dylan.

“I laid on a dune, I looked at the sky
When the children were babies and played on the beach
You came up behind me, I saw you go by
You were always so close and still within reach”

By the time of “Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus,” Cave was a true pathologist of the heart, searching out and examining the cankers of depression, artistic ambition, religious fanaticism, and yes, love. Everything, from the swirling violas and gospel choir to the most delicate guitar embellishments, is of a piece in theses songs, cackling like the Madhatter one moment, and now heavy with a sense of spiritual awe at the beauty and profound terror of this world. Truly, they seem to say, laughter or tears, how does one choose?

Which brings us to Cave’s most recent work, the second installment from his side project, “Grinderman, in which the austere refinement of the Bad Seeds albums gives way to something much looser, swamp-spawned and chaotic — Rock and Roll for the swinging father of three who can’t stop imagining terrible things about his neighbor’s wife. A veritable psychedelic symphony for those who know the adult world isn’t far removed from the tantrums and petty indignities of the playground.

“What’s this husband of yours ever given to you

Oprah Winfrey on a plasma screen

And a brood of jug-eared buck-toothed imbeciles

The ugliest fuckin’ kids I’ve ever seen.”

It’s this Nick Cave I like to imagine when I think of him walking down the sidewalk on the way to his office each morning, suit neatly pressed and briefcase in hand. Again, the man’s working method seems wildly at variance with most adolescent fantasies of stardom, and yet, in its very workman-like, business-proper aspect, it speaks to an almost childlike notion of  “normal” routine, like a young man sitting down at a cardboard box with a notepad and calculator and playing “office” just like he imagines real grownups do it.

Coming full-circle, Cave has discovered what all wrinkled and cackling sages know: to survive adulthood one need only confront it with the eye of a heartsick mortician and the smile of a petulant five-year-old.


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