A Beauty Impossible to Define: The Theology of Nick Cave
“With your book of ideas/ With your alchemy/ O Come on/ Send that stuff on down to me.”
Christ was forgiving, merciful, and loving, but he was after all the Son of the Old Testament God and his father’s blood still boiled in his veins. In creating his Son, God the Father had evolved, he had moved on…Christ came to right the wrongs of his father…Christ is the imagination, at times terrible, irrational, incendiary, and beautiful; in short, Godlike. —Nick Cave
In 1997, Nick Cave released The Boatman’s Call, a tender collection of songs, with somber, minimalist piano tones feeling delicate and personal in comparison to the snarling, wrathful character of his earlier oeuvre, its sonic content being augmented on every song by lyrical meditations on love. Just the year prior, the album Murder Ballads featured a relentless sideshow of grotesque characters within songs that were universally about murder. Murder Ballads concluded with a cynical rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Death is Not the End,” small consolation after the brutalities of “Stagger Lee,” “Henry Lee,” and all the other pseudo-Americana characters on the album. The transition in tone between Murder Ballads and The Boatman’s Call is as stark as from Malachi to Matthew, and speaks to a personal epiphany. A review in Allmusic was receptive to the shift, noting, “Murder Ballads brought Nick Cave’s morbidity to near-parodic levels, which makes the disarmingly frank and introspective songs of The Boatman’s Call all the more startling.” A song cycle equally inspired by Cave’s failed romantic affairs and religious doubts, The Boatman’s Call captures him at his most honest and despairing.”
In order to explore Cave’s peculiar understanding of Christianity — and his significant shift in tone from 1996 to 1997 — it is necessary to explore the history of his own relationship with religion, which began at the Anglican Church in Warracknabeal, Victoria, where he attended services twice a week between the ages of 8 and 12. In a BBC lecture, he describes his days as a choirboy: “The God I heard preached about there seemed remote, and alien, and uncertain. So I sat in the stalls, in my crimson cassock, while rogue thoughts oozed beneath the bolted door of my imagination.” But, “back then, I had no idea that those dark mutterings were coming from God.”
Nick Cave’s older albums are informed by a focus on the Old Testament, which he understands to express “a pitiful humanity suffering beneath a despotic God.” His transition in understanding from Anglicanism to apostasy to his own unique creativist theology in many respects parallels other modern Christian thinkers, but is unique in others. Based on that narrative of his childhood, the subsequent heroin-riddled apostasy of his young adulthood and his later reconciliation with Christianity can be understood as a reaction to the Anglican dogmatism of his upbringing. Indeed, the very first line of the very Christian Boatman’s Call reads, “I don’t believe in an interventionist God.” It explores how he redefines his theology as he returns to the Christian faith.
So how, then, does Cave understand Christ? In his “The Flesh Made Word” lecture, he offers a compelling reading of John 8: 6-8, the story of Jesus defending the adulterous woman. He makes rhetorical hay out of the oft-neglected depiction of Christ stooping to the ground, before saying, “He who is without sin, cast the first stone.” Cave writes, “Christ did not answer straightaway, but rather stooped down and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he didn’t here them… For me, this seemingly distracted gesture, the stooping down and the writing on the ground, is Christ accessing the God in himself. Christ then delivers the line that disempowers his opponents — and what an extraordinary remark it is — then stoops again to re-commune with God.” That explanation offers a dramatically mystical reinterpretation of the way that verse is traditionally preached. To be sure, Cave’s interpretation still contains the admonition against zealotry, but he argues the stooping action speaks of communion with Christ’s own creative spirit in a uniquely realized form, which allows him to concisely deliver a considered, original but uncompromising thought to the crowd.
Metaphors from The Boatman’s Call
The Boatman’s Call is best described as a set of love songs with heavy theological undertones. On the album, the love song is the creative form by which he describes the world — it is the canvas on which his philosophy is written. The woman in each love song is often analogous to the creative force, which he understands to have a companion-like relationship with the individual; “The imagination desires an alternate and through the writing of the love song, one sits and dines with loss and longing, madness and melancholy ecstasy, magic, joy, and love with equal measures of respect and gratitude.”
The titular boatman appears in the song “I Do Love Her So (Lime Tree Arbour)” during the first verse as God, calling to him and a woman — analogous to Christ, the imagination. When the boatman disappears midway through the song, he despairs that “There will always be suffering/ It flows through life like water,” but “Through every word I speak/ and every word I know/ There is a hand that protects me/ and I do love her so.” The use of naturalistic metaphors and a universal presence of the spirit, “everywhere I go,” already suggests a departure from buttoned-down Anglican ecclesiasticism.
The third track of The Boatman’s Call, “People They Ain’t No Good,” Cave lays out his own theodicy of sorts. He denies the doctrine of original sin as an explanation for human behavior by singing, “It ain’t in their hearts they’re bad/ They’d stick by you if they could/ But that’s just bullshit/ People just ain’t no good.” Though some “Nurse you when you’re ill of health,” they’re mostly no good. The gulf between human aspiration and human depravity gapes wide in Cave’s universe. Like in “Lime Tree Arbour,” he is singing to a mysterious woman in an intimate setting, looking out at a frightening, uncertain world, whose “Winter slammed us like a fist.” The woman with whom he communes is, again, Christ as the creative spirit, protected from the world in the intimacy of creative endeavor.
A feminine portrayal of Jesus might seem unusual, but it’s not without precedent, even within Protestantism. Aaron Fogleman, historian of radical religious movements in America, wrote a book in 2007 called Jesus is Female, which explored the impact of Moravian theology that feminized Jesus on the other German-speaking, predominantly Lutheran communities in early British North America. Turns out, mainstream Protestants at the time weren’t too pleased to hear about hymns that compared Christ’s spear wound to vaginas. This one, written in the first half of the 18th century by the son of the Moravian Church’s founder, contains the words, “Seiten-holgen/ du bist meinen seelgen/ doch das liebste platzlein;/ Seiten-schrein!/ leib und seel fahrt in dich nein.” [“Little side hole/ thou art my little soul/ yes the dearest little place;/ Side shrine/ body and soul passes into thee.”]
Cave is acting within a rock tradition that borrows from the blues, with its references to floods and other divine acts; the older cosmological language is probably better explained by the fact that he probably listened to a lot of records and thought the Old Testament sounded cool.
After we’re told about the irredeemable no-goodness of humanity, “Brompton Oratory” follows, a pastoral song about Cave’s reconversion, complexly set within a metaphorical church service. It isn’t friendly to the established church, referencing Luke 24 explicitly, the chapter wherein Christ appears to his followers on the road to Emmaus but they fail to recognize him. Cave muses that he wished he could make himself like the “stone apostles” outside the church building, so he wouldn’t have to see the “Beauty impossible to endure/ The blood imparted in little sips.” The apostles, emblematic of the church, are numb to the true nature of Christ as Cave sees him — made of stone. He sees the disconnect between himself, a ‘true believer,’ and the established church as in the spirit of Christ himself, who Cave argues saw the jurisprudential Pharisees as “enemies of the imagination, who actively blocked the spiritual flight of the people, and kept them bogged down with theological nitpicking, intellectualism, and law.” Instead, in the song Cave hails the revelations of the natural world, and its Pentecostal morn.
“Fifteen Feet of Pure White Snow,” from the later album No More Shall We Part, expresses a similar antagonism to the established church, so it bears mentioning in relation to “Brompton Oratory.” He makes apocalyptic predictions for overzealous Puritanism, depicting a buried town and a narrator that’s been “paralyzed by a lack of feeling/ I can’t even find anything that’s worth stealing/ under 15 feet of pure white snow.”
It would be a mistake to make too stark of a foreground/background reading of The Boatman’s Call. On “Are You the One I’ve Been Waiting For?” Cave makes the lover-Christ analogy explicitly:
There’s a man who spoke wonders though I’ve never met him
He said, “He who seeks finds and who knocks will be let in”
I think of you in motion and just how close you are getting
And how every little thing anticipates you
All down my veins my heart-strings call
Are you the one that I’ve been waiting for?
Within previous songs, wherein Cave would simply describe a metaphorical relationship with the creative imagination, this one speaks of a relationship with another human being that embodies divine love. God, then, is to be found between human beings, and Christ is its mediator. This is very similar to 20th-century Christian philosophies that emphasize ethics above supernaturalism and ritual. Likewise, on the final track of the album, Cave expresses doubts about his own salvation, singing, “If it were but a matter of faith/ measured in petitions and prayer/ she would materialize, all fleshed out/ But it is not, nor do I care.” They are lines that echo Tillich’s concept of ‘estrangement’ from God, a condition that he sees in the entire world.
Cave’s depictions of the world at large in The Boatman’s Call are of an unfriendly, desolate place. “Where Do We Go Now but Nowhere” is a grotesque meditation on modernity, with all its unfamiliar creations. He describes a kitten “with the paw of a bear,” and a crazed girl “gnawing her knuckles in the chemical light.” The despairing verses are punctuated by a mantra-like chorus that simply pleads, “wake up, my love, my lover wake up.” The chorus is an appeal to Christ crucified and resurrected in humanity as the creative spirit. The “fresh, clean, antiseptic air” is the modern world from which Cave desires deliverance.
However, the question of his belief in salvation or even an afterlife is deliberately left uncertain. In “Idiot Prayer,” a man facing his fate asks, “Will I be seeing you soon?/ If what they say around here is true/ then we’ll meet again/ me and you.” The same song also speaks to a lack of human knowledge of the machinations of divine justice: “If you’re in hell, then what can I say/ you probably deserved it anyway,” but ends with the line “We each get what we deserve.” Either by the wages of sin or fate, death is universal, says the dying man in the song.
“Crises of love and faith make for more resonant songs than does senseless bloodletting, and Cave seems to be in the process of uncovering the roots of his macabre obsessions and revealing more of himself along the way. His language is as packed with biblical imagery as ever, but it seems more honest than his earlier intoxicating jaunts through the valley of the shadow of death,” so said a review of The Boatman’s Call in Salon. The album represented the first fully articulated version of Cave’s return to the Christian tradition. Over successive albums, he continued to flesh out the concepts initially explored on The Boatman’s Call.
“People they ain’t no good”: Nick Cave’s Ethics
In place of faith, Cave seems to endorse a humble uncertainty about divine affairs. Because God has been relocated to the relationships between people, enabled by a creative force symbolized by Christ, divine command ethics are impossible, as is certainty about eternal life. The richly illustrative “Oh My Lord,” from No More Shall We Part, embodies his new vision well: “The ladders of life that we scale merrily/ move mysteriously around/ so that when you think you’re climbing up, man/ in fact you’re climbing down.” It’s a paradox that finds humanity anxious and uncertain, facing important questions about how one might rightly live.
On the gospel-inflected “There She Goes, My Beautiful World,” from 2004’s Abbatoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus, Cave takes on the character of a writer experiencing writer’s block (“Me, I’m lying here, with nothing in my ears.”). Pleading, he sends up the final verse:
I will be your slave
I will peel you grapes
Up on your pedestal
With your ivory and apes
With your book of ideas
With your alchemy
O Come on,
Send that stuff on down to me.
Earlier in the song, he demythologizes various literary figures, characterizing Karl Marx, who “Squeezed his carbuncles while writing Das Kapital,” and Dylan Thomas, who “Died drunk in St. Vincent’s Hospital” with much less reverence than usually attends them. He recasts them as human figures, afflicted by disease and drunkenness — common, human afflictions. The intended effect universalizes the creativity Cave sees as emanating from a divine presence. All of them, he reminds us, were merely suffering mortals, and the wellspring of creative potential those fortunate icons accessed can and should be accessed in every person. The previous verse is directed toward evangelism:
So if you got a trumpet, get on your feet,
brother, and blow it
If you’ve got a field, that don’t yield,
well get up and hoe it
I look at you and you look at me and
deep in our hearts know it.
That you weren’t much of a muse,
but then I weren’t much of a poet.
Although Cave has drastically reimagined the meaning of God, he maintains humanity’s need for a relationship with the divine. He sees the creative potential within humanity as “divinely granted” but “unlockable.” Metaphorical language of sending-down is suggestive of an orthodox cosmology. However, rather than suggesting his belief in a God somewhere out there in space, the reality is simpler: Cave is inhabiting the form of rock musicians to express his ideas in the same way he inhabits the form of a love song in The Boatman’s Call. Cave is acting within a rock tradition that borrows from the blues, with its references to floods and other divine acts; the older cosmological language is probably better explained by the fact that he probably listened to a lot of records and thought the Old Testament sounded cool. Similarly, I don’t think he believes that “ivory and apes” really attend God on a throne in heaven. Instead, his is a fundamentally mystical expression of God, because it speaks of communion with a divine presence through creative human acts. And because of the essential meaning communicated through those creative acts, all humanity needs Christ, the imagination. This is Cave’s fundamental ethical principle: people should work to unlock their divinely-granted imagination.
Nick Cave is often described as a workmanlike musician. He is an extremely prolific artist, having written two novels, music for three first-run movies, and countless albums for three different notable bands. Now well-established, he works in an office composing songs and working on his various projects. He is a slave to muse Sophia, so to speak. The creative process has dominated his life, and love, to Cave, is similarly dominating. The titular track from No More Shall We Part, the album that followed The Boatman’s Call, characterizes love as a contractual business arrangement. He sings, “And no more shall we part/ your chain of command has been silenced now/ and all those birds would’ve sung to your beautiful heart/ anyhow.” The end of the song shifts and addresses God, pleading “Lord, stay by me/ Don’t go down/ I will never be free/ if I’m not free now.”
That understanding of love allows the albums before The Boatman’s Call to be reexamined. They are albums of rebellion, with names like Your Funeral, My Trial, Kicking Against the Pricks, and Tender Prey. The railing of those albums is the story of Cave rejecting the despotic, uncreative God of the Old Testament and of the orthodoxy of his childhood. It is his personal apocalypse, and it is his ‘born-again’ story, to borrow a term. In the maniacally narcissistic “Lay Me Low,” from 1994’s Let Love In, Cave eulogizes himself. He lists figures from his childhood, including his teachers who say he was “one of God’s sorrier creatures,” and the police chief, who says he was “a malanderer, a badlander and a thief.” The funeral itself is a grand affair, wherein “the sea will rage and the sky will storm” and “all man and beast will mourn.” He offers the same to anyone who cares to listen:
If you wanna be my friend
And you wanna repent
And you want it all to end
And you wanna know when
Well, do it now, don’t care how
Take your final bow
Make a stand, take my hand
And blow it all to hell.
Salvation, then, is offered to anyone who cares enough to destroy the oppressions of uncreative and dull thinking. “Take up the cross” indeed, Beiberites.
The condition of the world in Cave’s theology is hyperbolically stark; to get that picture one needn’t look any further than the matter-of-fact brutality of both the characters and the landscape in The Proposition. An overly simple reading might call Cave a hedonist, even a pessimist. With his slicked-back hair and sleazy mustache, it’s certainly a tempting interpretation. This is Cave’s image, his creation. The epistle to the Hebrews refers to this Christ-as-image idea. The first chapter reads, “Who being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had by himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high.” By choosing to portray all the guts and depravity of the human experience, and even relishing them, Cave effects a Christ-like kenosis. Depicting the world in a tragic way allows an experience with the tragic emotions of pity and terror, which in turn lead to an awareness of, as Joyce puts it, “the grave and constant sufferings” of humanity. By meeting the world on its own terms, in its ‘un-awakened’ state, he calls it to commune with the creative imagination. In order to do so, he must defile his own image, which is the central, Christ-like sacrifice of his art.
[Top photo: Desislava Chongarova]