By Nick Cave and Sean O’Hagan
Published by Canongate Books – Out now
40 years of music-making wrapped up into 40 hours of conversation between friends becomes a searching exploration into spirituality, grief and the redemptive power of art.
Carnage comes off the back of an ongoing project for Nick Cave, following personal tragedy he has invested himself in learning and teaching others about his own very private experiences of what it means to lose a loved one before their time, but also invited fans to share his creative world, alongside a raft of new work: learning the new craft of ceramics, excellent new film scores (close collaborator Andrew Dominik’s new film Blonde and series Dahmer, both Netflix), national tours (with and without The Bad Seeds), ever expanding tongue-in-cheek tick-tacky merchandise and a hardback book and exhibition (Stranger Than Kindess) that further excavated the Nick Cave persona, Cave makes a point in the book that along with his wife Susie, who’s fashion label of stunning dresses The Vampire’s Wife, has seen them saying ‘yes’ to life, meaning pretty much everything, as if in maddened defiance of grief and retreat, refusing to be broken by emotional struggle, Cave has grown into a constant presence at the edge of contemporary culture, both giving and creating in turn, it has been a startling burst of positive energy that Carnage in some respects seeks to interrogate and to bring to a close, under his own terms. And there is the stunning grace of Ghosteen, an album dividing die-hard fans and encouraging a whole new generation of Cave listeners, like myself, buoyed along by the masterpiece of Push The Sky Away.
The book however is less benign, and more confrontational than it might seem, and all for the better. Carnage shows Cave taking ownership of his story and his legend – but also trying to discuss the shifting of long-held beliefs and to overturn old perceptions of how he is seen in the public eye. For me, the great value of Carnage is where Cave is able to speak outside of his persona, a near impossible task given the weight of his songbook and the personal interest in his biographical history that runs alongside it.
The book neatly avoids being labelled a memoir (made explicit in quotation on the back cover), but an ongoing dialogue, more like we have inherited the ancient philosophers, with Sean O’Hagan as both Cave’s confessor and his interlocutor. In spite of famously lamenting the idiotic conversation he has endured with some journalists, Cave finds a great partner in O’Hagan, friends for decades, the music journalist and photography critic has many of his own game insights into Cave’s world and is excellent in the way he follows-up on Cave’s responses, ‘what do you mean by that?’ ‘is that all that happened?’ his considerate and probing enquiries encourage Cave to ruminate, making Carnage a much more vital and alive exchange of feelings and ideas than any ghost-written hack job biography would ever manage.
In this vein there are few absolutes, it is not about being ‘right’ overall the book serves more as an invitation to empathy, which the world is sorely in need of at this time. While it is packaged heavenly white and bears a gnomic shining circle on its cover it would be easy to sneer and doubt, but that is part of Cave’s key concern with modern times: deeply ingrained cynicism eats away at new possibilities for understanding, the new Cave argues that there is (potential) wonder in everything and that in some way each of us matters to the rest of humanity; we have more in common than what divides us.
Cave himself offers the book as a gesture of ‘good faith’; always game for a debate the presentation of Carnage works towards his own deeper concerns about the polarizing schism wrought by far-right, anti-fa, woke identity and cancel culture due to the general mode of discussion, particularly in Western democratic states like the UK. Identifying himself as a conservative person, this extends in myriad ways, Cave is open to the extremes of art as an honest expression of darker realities as born out by his songwriting and subject matter, where he used to stand accused of misogyny in the ways his song were driven by obsessive lust and the murder of women, Cave stands by these works as honest expressions of his creative world at that time. Elsewhere he acknowledges the demands of songwriting, less a craft than a process of work, as proud as he is of great music such as “The Mercy Seat” which the Bad Seeds have included in almost every live show since it was written – look it up – he is keen to rise above and beyond the idea of music as a legacy. In acknowledging the strength of belief in his own self-identity Cave notes his tender balance of religion as a unifying form of community, an extension of the family unit that gave people common ties to come together. This is in keeping with his original post-punk iconoclasm; he can contain these multitudes in their own kind of balance, without needing to explain at length, let alone to excuse himself for having made mistakes of attitude inviting controversial offence. A few short years back, Cave and The Bad Seeds received some criticism for playing to audiences in Israel, people such as Roger Waters encouraged him to join a wider boycott in solidarity against the occupation of Palestine and human rights atrocities committed therein, which Cave refused to align himself with, restating a commitment that music and art are elevating forms, that work beyond politics, keen to play for fans and others willing to listen, finding that when music and social issues are made to collide, the one cheapens the other with diminishing returns.
On matters of religion and spirituality Cave now takes a much more free-flowing view on questions of doubt and faith. Where he has long proclaimed a belief in God, like any thoughtful religious person this has wavered, with the rigors of faith demanding questions, as evidenced in so much of Cave’s discography. But more recently Cave professes to a more mystical point of view, Carnage shows him aligning himself to an openness to God but also in his experiences of intense emotional and spiritual connection with his son Arthur who died in 2015. Cave speaks at length about the rigors of grief, in some ways as an extension of his work on the Red Hand Files, not dissimilar to Carnage the Q&A journal that encourages Cave to address aspects of himself he might have otherwise neglected had the questions not given him pause for thought, and allowing for his forthcoming responses.
But when Cave now speaks about the question of distance from Arthur it is from a place of mixed certainty. In the album Ghosteen he certainly was inspired by and in some form of oblique communication with his lost child, an experience both revelatory and at times causing Cave much emotional anxiety. To hear any parent that has lost a child speak with such painful candour and open-hearted grace about his personal experiences, is the great gift of Carnage, but also its burden. We are not onlookers at the scene of tragedy but invited in to reflect upon our own griefs and sorrows, particularly given the period of Covid-19 lockdown and its aftermath in which this book’s interviews took place and to find some sense of communion in that mutual sharing.
Cave suggests with some fatalism that as we are bound to sin, and experience key moments of loss or pain in our lives, we can always return to the regenerative force of music, both cathartic and inspiring, in his words “it makes us better’ or in the more active tense to ‘be’ better. Where Cave had once sung “People Ain’t No Good” in a semi-ironic tone, admitting our flaws and the difficulty of living a good life, whatever that might mean, he now affirms that to adopt a mode of living kindness and the capacity for understanding creates a genuine sense of hope, not in the blind solace of meek Christian virtues, but as a way of confronting the inevitable cruelty and ignorance of humankind within a wayward and chaotic universe. Cave ends the book towards seeking some form of absolution, what he calls, forgiveness, from what exactly it is unclear. For a man struggling under the shadow of an unknowable pain few will have to undergo, he still walks tall and looks forward to the future – whatever it might bring – in Carnage the work of Cave and O’Hagan offers shining light by which we might know ourselves better and reaffirms the power of music where can find awakening, resistance and a renewed passion for hope.
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