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The Art of Nick Cave
New Critical Essays
By John H. Baker
Intellect LtdCopyright © 2013 Intellect Ltd
All rights reserved.
'Into My Arms': Themes of Desire and Spirituality in The Boatman's Call
In his 1999 lecture 'The Secret Life of the Love Song', Nick Cave observed that [w]e all experience within us what the Portuguese call 'saudade', which translates as an inexplicable longing, an unnamed and enigmatic yearning of the soul, and it is this feeling that lives in the realms of the imagination and inspiration and is the breeding ground for the sad song, for the Love Song [...] The Love Song is the light of God, deep down, blasting up through our wounds.
In this chapter I shall explore the ways in which this profound sense of 'inexplicable longing' informs Cave's love songs. I shall frame my discussion and analysis initially in terms of Wim Wenders' 1987 film Der Himmel über Berlin/Wings of Desire (hereafter Wings of Desire) in which Cave featured in a cameo role (Wenders 1987). The principal themes in that film offer an interesting, comparative commentary upon some of the central concerns of Cave's album The Boatman's Call (1997) that this chapter focuses on. The album's opening track, 'Into My Arms', has become an evocative signifier of Cave's wider back catalogue of love songs. They are characterized by a deep, poetic, melancholic introspection. Secondly, I will be discussing the extent to which The Boatman's Call explores and conveys Cave's search for a radical Christian theology that might offer the possibility of an existential, spiritual redemption.
Wings of Desire
I first encountered Nick Cave's music through his cameo appearance with his band the Bad Seeds in Wim Wenders' award-winning film Wings of Desire. Wenders won 'Best Director' for this film at the 1987 Cannes Film Festival. The film is haunted by an almost overwhelming sense of loss and alienation. In it, Wenders explores flight, both as desire and as a metaphor for transcending the limitations of our human existence. In Wings of Desire strange angel-figures watch over the lives of the citizens of a pre-1989, Cold War Berlin. The angels are seen standing behind readers in libraries and on Berlin's rooftops watching the crowds passing below. The citizens' lives and their relationships are enmeshed in the complex and poetic web of a fractured city. This evokes themes of mortality, loss and rebirth throughout the film. Cave's appearance as a post-punk, anarchic prophet burns with brief, savage intensity into the film's narrative like a cigarette stubbed out on its celluloid. Cave was living in Berlin at this time.
There is an interesting synchronicity in the decade or so that separates Wings of Desire from The Boatman's Call, reflected in Cave's own musical and spiritual journey in this period and its resonance for the many admirers of his music. This journey is expressed in his ongoing struggle to discover a non-reductive, radically redemptive spirituality. In the 1980s Cave continued to battle with fracturing life-events from much earlier in his life. For Cave, the earliest and most formative of these traumatic experiences was the premature death of his father in a road accident when Cave was still a teenager. This tragedy occurred when Cave was embroiled in a rebellious adolescence. The traumatic experience of loss remained a dark star that hovered over much of the rest of his life. Simultaneously the album revisits another crippling metaphorical bereavement in Cave's life immediately prior to the writing and release of The Boatman's Call, the traumatic ending of his tortured love affair with the singer-songwriter PJ Harvey. Lines from the song 'Brompton Oratory' convey with razor-sharp poetics Cave's devastation at the unsought ending of this relationship: '[n]o god up in the sky/No devil beneath the sea/Could do the job that you did/Of bringing me to my knees' (2007: 278). This dichotomy of desire and its emotional, psychological and existential cost in human existence is central to the characters in Wings of Desire, in which Kantian, trench-coated angels silently witness the existential angst of the troubled human lives they watch over. As well as watching Berlin's citizens the angels are able to listen to the internal thoughts of those they observe. The film is shot in such a way that the angels' perspective on human existence is presented monochromatically; by contrast, the human beings' viewing perspective is filmed in colour. However, these angels, whilst possessing the power to hear the inner desires and anxieties of humans, cannot becalm them or, more crucially, 'be-come' them. They cannot intervene in the human condition, forced as they are to be mere witnesses of history. This unique role bestows upon them a metaphorical otherness or transcendence of the limitations of human mortality. One of the central characters of the film, an angel called Damiel (played by Bruno Ganz), experiences an overwhelming attraction towards Maria, a young female trapeze artist in a travelling circus (played by Solveig Donmartin). Damiel simultaneously experiences a transformative, disruptive and overpowering phenomenon: human desire. He recognizes that the only way in which this desire can be fulfilled is through a kind of radical reincarnation: his transformation from angel into human. In that sense he risks, like Lucifer, a form of fall from the spiritual into the material world.
The songwriter as fallen angel
In The Boatman's Call I propose that Cave uses his narrator voice as a kind of quasi-'Damiel', which enables Cave to observe and explore his own and our human experience in an equivalent way to that of the angel in Wenders' film. Therein lies the potential for empathy and catharsis for Cave, through that character's emotional, psychological and spiritual journey. There is simultaneously an equivalent and therapeutic function for the listener. In that sense, both songwriter and listener(s) are afforded insight and release through an observational role similar to Wenders' fictional angel. As with Damiel, our sense of detached, dispassionate witnessing is challenged by the power of desire explored in the album. Is this the 'secret life' of the love song to which Cave refers, one that can activate a powerful and destabilizing empathy? This metaphor of emotional and spiritual falling has, of course, powerful resonances in the mythic narrative of Lucifer's descent from the sublime otherness of heaven: a fallen angel. There is also, of course, the myth of Icarus: an embodiment of transgressive desire being punished by death. It becomes even more thematically layered and enriched if Cave's traveller-narrator is viewed as a form of radicalized Christ overwhelmed by transformative suffering. His journey takes him across the 12 tracks that make up the album. It is hauntingly resonant that 'tracks' is also the colloquialism used by heroin addicts for the marks made by a syringe on their body. Like some doomed Romantic, Gothic journeyers of Schubert and Schumann lieder, Cave's imagined soul searcher seeks a kind of salvation: one that can only be realized through a provocative and dangerous entry into his particular kind of Gethsemane. It is only through a courageous embracing of a cross of emotional and spiritual brokenness that the fallen angel might ultimately find a radically alternative salvation. The singer-songwriter invites his listener(s) to make a profound choice to 'fall' and be embraced by desire: into its arms. This coming together of songwriter and listener through the medium of the fictionalized alter ego resonates with the act and function of the Mass, as Cave stated in his radio talk 'The Flesh Made Word', originally broadcast in 1996: '[t]here is a communion, there is language, there is imagination. There is God. God is a product of the creative imagination and God is that imagination taken flight' (1997: 137).
For those like this author who recognize Cave as a fellow traveller, these love songs serve as signifiers of the sublime. Cave's fallen angel faces some final existential reckoning in the bleakly humoured title of the penultimate track 'Idiot Prayer'. In it he is able to challenge the binary moral certainties of conventional Christian theology:
Is Heaven just for victims, dear?
Where only those in pain go?
Well, it takes two to tango
If you're in Heaven then you'll forgive me, dear
Because that's what they do up there
But if you're in Hell, then what can I say
You probably deserved it anyway
For we will meet again
And there'll be Hell to pay
Songs for Charon
Charon was the ancient boatman who, for a fee, ferried the souls of the dead across the rivers Styx and Acheron to Hades in Greek mythology. Employing this as a framing device for this section of the chapter I want to propose that the songs on The Boatman's Call might be viewed as landing stages on a river journey to a destination of the death of desire. Whilst there is seemingly no alternative destination possible, Cave's traveller is on a redemptive journey. This journey of love and loss carries its own possibility of an inherent transformative power. It is also one of immeasurable cost, far beyond the coin traditionally paid to Charon.
'Into My Arms'
This song is characterized by a dialectics of faith and doubt and certainty and unknowing. Its synthesis is the centrality of love. This is a love that is located primarily and experientially in the one that is loved: the object of desire. The primacy of the beloved allows the possibility of a faith in the power of love to endure and also offer emotional liberation. With subtly melancholic harmonies on a nuanced dying fall, the gentle rhythm and tempo of the song communicates a subtext and subcurrents of desire. For Cave, faith is not predicated on a belief in an externalized other, but, much more powerfully, in the experiential reality of the lover. It is her presence in his world that reinforces and validates his spirituality. This is a 'God' embodied in female form and presence, and a love whose divine dimension is incarnated in and as mutual, reciprocal desire. This enables the narrative speaker to affirm that he 'believe[s] in Love' and in 'some kind of path/That we can walk down, me and you' (2007: 273). This path is travelled upon with its direction and destination perfected in the lovers' destination: a shared embrace, which in Cave's terms embodies a communion. Thus, whilst the beloved believes in an 'interventionist God', who is simultaneously external to perceived reality and able to enter it to affect change in human existence, her lover-narrator experiences the divine in and through her presence (2007: 273).
Track two opens with the line that gives its name to the album: '[t]he boatman calls from the lake/A lone loon dives upon the water/I put my hand over hers/Down in the lime-tree arbour' (2007: 275). The 'loon' is both a diving sea bird and also a common (if insensitive) colloquialism for someone who hovers perilously on the edge of sanity. This 'lone' loon is a solitary bird swooping in and out of the water. It also serves as a metaphor for the narrator's lonely immersion within the desire he feels for the woman. It suggests that desire itself may be a form of madness. These thoughts hover over the lovers in the secluded shade of the lime-tree arbour. Tactile experience reaffirms itself again, as in the opening track's potent image of being held in the beloved's arms. This time it is in the repeated image of the hand that is protectively 'over' that of the beloved as if it affords protection to the fragile nature of their mutual desire. 'There will always be suffering/It flows through life like water': this sense of water as a kind of transmutable phenomenon through which the speaker travels, and also as a metaphor for his existential angst, is powerful (2007: 275). As the narrator plunges desperately, loon-like, in and out of 'life like water', it is as if he too might drown in his own desire (2007: 275).
'People Ain't No Good'
By track three the quiet (if problematic) optimism and sense of a love known experientially begins to be questioned. This is conveyed and interrogated by a song whose title expresses its moral perspective. It also subliminally suggests the early-hours anguish of a Hank Williams or Johnny Cash lament: '[p]eople just ain't no good/I think that's well understood/You can see it everywhere you look/People just ain't no good' (2007: 276). The song opens with plaintive discordance and pain communicated through the sharply amplified strings of the piano, embodying a sense of emotional exhaustion. The intrinsic, irredeemable failure of people is mournfully rearticulated throughout the song. Cave places it into a beautifully haunting context of almost predestined doomed love affairs and marriage: '[w]e were married under cherry trees/Under blossom we made our vows/All the blossoms come sailing down/Through the streets and through the playgrounds' (2007: 276). This is suggested by an image of lustrous poetic economy and searing emotional pain: '[t]he windows rattling in the gales/To which she drew the curtains/Made out of her wedding veils' (2007: 276). This is a world in which people's destructive incapacity for love is signalled with razor-sharp specificity in images of 'jilted lovers', 'pink-eyed pigeons' and 'coffins of wood' (2007: 277). The hope of a transforming love that was immanent in embrace ('Into My Arms') and protective hands ('Lime-Tree Arbour') has now become an emotional disaster area, hauntingly evoked by an agonized violin and single, discordant chimes from the vibes. The attempt at a conditional consolation – '[i]t ain't that in their hearts they're bad' – is ultimately and bitterly condemned: '[t]hey'd stick by you if they could/But that's just bullshit, baby/People just ain't no good' (2007: 277).
If the two opening songs provided the possibility of a heaven on earth embodied experientially as God-as-desire, this third track summons up a desolate vision of the impossibility of love and desire being sustained. In its absence is an unremitting purgatory of lost love and future anguish: '[t]o our love send back all the letters/To our love a valentine of blood/To our love let all the jilted lovers cry/That people they just ain't no good' (2007: 277).
The mood changes again in the following track, whose title refers to a famous London Roman Catholic church. Something of the solidity of architectural materiality seems to inform a sense of recovered perspective on behalf of the narrator. The word 'Oratory' comes from medieval Latin and means 'place of prayer'; Brompton Oratory was founded by John Henry (later Cardinal) Newman. It is in this song that there is, apart from 'Into my Arms', the only formal, explicit reference to Christ and the Bible on this album. This is when the narrator tells us that the Bible reading for the day is from Luke, Chapter 24, '[w]here Christ returns to his loved ones' (2007: 278). In this final chapter of the Gospel according to Luke, Christ reappears after his death in a resurrected form, one that is material and somatic: '[b]ehold my hands and feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have' (Luke 24: 39). Once again, and central to my analysis and discussion, we have a God who is located in the human. This is also a God who, in showing his disciples and friends his 'hands and feet', embodies a love that may be encountered and sensuously embraced. There is also a subtly evocative reference to a major event in the Christian calendar, Pentecost: '[u]p those stone steps I climb/Hail this joyful day's return/Into its great shadowed vault I go/Hail the Pentecostal morn' (2007: 278). Within Christian teaching and its calendar of major events and festivals, Pentecost describes the time after the ascension of Christ when the Holy Spirit appeared as 'cloven tongues as of fire' and anointed his followers (Acts 2: 3). Central to this narrative is the way in which, as the fire fell upon them, the believers were able both to understand languages not their own and also to speak 'in tongues': a spiritual language of prophecy and spiritual vision.
Excerpted from The Art of Nick Cave by John H. Baker. Copyright © 2013 Intellect Ltd. Excerpted by permission of Intellect Ltd.
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