Nick Cave is Picasso, that’s who he is. Like Picasso, he looks at something – or someone – and doesn’t blink. Like Picasso, he devours that someone – or something – with his eyes and then he gets it down in a wild and protean style.
His son’s death, a massacre in a bar, a Brighton prostitute, his wife’s eyes, a baby’s cry. The struggle to write, the struggle to survive. Often, Cave writes about a woman. Often, violence is done. It may be physical, in a murder ballad. It may be metaphorical, over a breakup. It may be metaphysical, a wrestling match with a muse. It’s often all three and more. Like Picasso, Cave never pauses to consider his masculinity and the good and bad that comes with it. It just is, he channels and expresses it, and the result can be as ludicrously grandiose – as fundamentally otiose – as this paragraph. It can also be uncomfortable. Nick Cave’s honesty, like Picasso’s, is total.
But often, the result is a shot of pure beauty. Like Picasso paintings, Cave songs contain romantic longing as well as erotic violence, romantic violence as well as erotic longing. There is even sweetness. Just as Picasso can paint a chilling death’s head or make a monkey from his son’s toy cars, Cave can sing of a trip to the electric chair then turn to croon about ‘little white clouds like gambolling lambs’.
As I never know which Picasso I would choose to keep, I never know which Cave song to play on repeat. A while ago it was Stagger Lee, his hilarious, violent and downright obscene retelling of an old folk standard. Primitive Cave. Then a few months ago it was an obscure 90s B-side, Come Into My Sleep, all vibraphone swirl, ‘impossible longings’ and ‘mountains of meaningless words’. Romantic Cave.
Then very recently it was Wide Lovely Eyes from the 2013 album Push The Sky Away, a hymn to his adored wife built like much of his recent output on a spare loop by Warren Ellis. Modernist Cave. Of all the work from all Picasso’s periods I’d probably pick something from the time of Marie-Thérèse Walter, his mistress of the 1920s and 30s. My wife – who I think looks a lot like Marie-Thérèse – has wide lovely eyes as well.
But today the Cave Song on repeat is Nature Boy, a song from Abattoir Blues, the first disc of a 2004 double album, a very Picassian title – think of The Charnel House – as is the second disc, The Lyre of Orpheus. Nature Boy comes after There She Goes My Beautiful World, a fast-paced ode to the muse with an insane lyric in which Philip Larkin sticking it out ‘in a library in Hull’ rhymes with Gauguin who ‘buggered off, man/ And went all tropical’. In some ways Nature Boy is the same song, about a muse, linguistically complex, a rocker too though it swings rather than pounds. It’s also, like the whole double album, overloaded in production. There are gospel singers, clattering pianos, guitars and crooning ‘ooh-la-la-las’ caroming from speaker to speaker. The Bad Seeds, in any iteration, can be a roiling, boiling thunderstorm of a band.
I suspect I’m wrong – Cave’s wife Susie Bick also has black hair and green eyes – but I’ve decided Nature Boy is a joyous memory of PJ Harvey, happier thanks to distance than the bleak lyrics which fill Cave’s 1997 breakup masterpiece, The Boatman’s Call. When Cave is down, he’s down: dark, gothic, murderous. But when he’s up, when he’s in love, he’s an exhilarating birdman, swooping and soaring, Icarus before he flew too high. Think of the songs from Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!, the bizarre mid-Grinderman career-break Bad Seeds blast from 2008. Think of the magnificently ridiculous moustache Cave sprouted at the time. Then marry that very Australian energy and irreverence to the lovelorn desperation that went before and has come after. You have Nature Boy.
The opening verse is pure Cave:
I was just a boy when I sat down
To watch the news on TV
I saw some ordinary slaughter
I saw some routine atrocity
My father said, ‘Don't look away
You got to be strong, you got to be bold, now’
He said that in the end it is beauty
That is going to save the world, now
That beauty arrives in the chorus, a succession of somethings in the way she moves:
And she moves among the sparrows
And she floats upon the breeze
And she moves among the flowers
And she moves something deep inside of me
Nature Boy is about a beauty who unlike Picasso’s Marie-Thérèse is nothing like my wife: she is darker and slimmer, more mysterious, spikier. But Cave’s paean to her is so urgent, it translates. And there’s more. Happily – like Picasso – Cave has no qualm with less pure motives:
You said, ‘Hey Nature Boy
You’re looking at me
With some unrighteous intention’
My knees felt weak
I couldn’t speak
I was having thoughts
That were not in my best interest to mention
You took me back to your place
And dressed me up in a deep-sea diver’s suit
You played the patriot and raised the flag
And I stood at full salute
Damn him if he isn’t being sexy and witty. Perhaps this is where Cave departs from Picasso, who wasn’t ever particularly funny. Cave has brio, glee and a grinning embrace of the ludicrous within the profound. He makes me laugh like a drain.
So, of course, does my wife. And tomorrow, she will look at me with her wide lovely eyes that, who knew, our three young girls have inherited. And tomorrow, maybe while I gaze at her under the Picasso poster that hangs over our kitchen table, of Marie-Thérèse with her breasts halfway up her arm because why the hell not, I’ll wish I had written this piece about another Cave song instead.
Maybe it’ll be Red Right Hand, the demonic shuffler which grins out at you from Dante’s Inferno or Netflix, where it soundtracks Peaky Blinders, and which Tom Waits said he wished he’d written. Maybe it’ll be Jesus Alone, the extraordinary sonic onslaught which opens the last album, Skeleton Tree. Or maybe it’ll be something from Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!! We Call Upon The Author To Explain, say, with its demented shout of ‘Prolix, prolix, nothing a pair of scissors can’t fix!’ It probably should be that one.
Martin Pengelly is weekend editor for Guardian US, for which he writes about books, rugby and Donald Trump. He tweets @MartinPengelly
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