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Nick Cave (between personal and metaphysical desire).          




Somewhere on the stretched skin that covers the ground between the personal and the existential there can be found a mark. This mark indicates the place beneath the heavens that is equidistant from the poles that govern human desire. Between the desire for life and the desire for the beyond, between the desires of life (of sexual need and the need for recognition) and the desire for some (half-recognised) link with the sacred (the source of the guarantees, the force, or, at least, the rhetoric of eternity) lies the place of which this mark is a sign. This is the place marked out by the tension between the individual and the metaphysical. It presents a tear in the unity of the self; a double-voiced, double-meaning, double-dealing dissonant harmony of the self. The double-entendre of the metaphysical. It is this tension that haunts the lyrics of the songs of Nick Cave. A tension further accentuated by the videos made to accompany many of his most popular songs. In their interpretation (by image of the music and lyrics). In their transmutation into the pop (promo) video.


On the shoreline that divides the city and the sea we find the place of these songs, their place of reference, the singer found walking beneath the stars, the songs traversing the horizon between humanity and its other.


A classic case is the ambiguous deixis, the polyvalent richness, the varieties of reference, of ‘you’ and other indicators of person. Marking out the distance from those motivated by individual desire (the typical ‘you’ of the lyric) to those motivated by a desire for god (‘You’). A difference inaudible in the pronunciation of the word alone, but retrievable from the context.


Songs in this category: ‘Straight to You’: ‘Into my Arms’ (even more so after the video, with the singer, the ‘I’ of the song, assuming a Christ-like, redeeming figure); ‘Are You the One that I’ve Been Waiting For?’ (the metaphysical connotations of which suddenly transform the song’s genre from lyric to hymn).


In this way, many of Cave’s songs cover a range of reference from the notion of personal, individual care and solicitude through to a global metaphysical solicitude, which calls up -even if only as a negative- a sense of redemption and salvation (the latter element is less ambiguous in such songs as ‘Red Right Hand’, which draws upon ‘Gothic’, Romance, that is allegorical, demonic, and ‘trickster’ type traditions, all of which are already replete with supernatural connotation).


‘Dodgy/Edgy’… (Gothic). Signalling the key role of transgression, of a transgressive edge to be found in many of the lyrics (something seized upon in their re-presentation, their re-contextualising, in video form, part of the new trend for the consumption of music on DVDs). Transgression in the arts. Pretty much established as a late 20th c art form. A given (co-opted and canonised by consumerism and the cultural shifts of the ‘60s and ‘70s). And the function of transgression; its end and its management; its role in the conservation of identity, as marker of generations and of class difference, as an affront to others. Its role in ritual effects (the pop/folk ‘single’ as ritual). Again heir to the demonic, to the supernatural, to Romance (‘Gothick’) and to ‘trickster’-type traditions in culture, as to their appearance in popular culture – source and inspiration of many of the ‘ballads’. (Not least, of ‘Murder Ballads’).


Songs in this category: ‘Where the Wild Roses Grow’; ‘Henry Lee’; ‘Stagger Lee’ (sacrificial rituals all); ‘There’s a Devil Waiting Outside Your Door’; ‘Red Right Hand’.


At the interface of both of these two categories… Transgression and metaphysical desire; a combination whose result is truly ritualistic. This drawing upon so many powerful wellsprings of meaning is ritual in effect (as also in affect, on the feelings conjured forth in the soul of the listener). For transgression is but another route (the ‘other’ route) to the sacred; a route taken via its opposite, its negative exemplar, its limits and so its lining, its edge, its outline or horizon. We may trace the form of the sacred through its abjected borderline, through the rejected matter that litters its boundaries (as in linguistics where things are often defined by what they are not, and are thus rendered dependant, are flavoured, coloured, even haunted by these -putatively- excluded meanings). For these reasons transgression is so often a part of ritual; providing a taste of the other, a taste of chaos, before the return to order is re-affirmed. This transgression, this movement beyond, echoing, presaging or accompanying the movement of ritual beyond our world of temporal sanity and into the insanity of the land of eternal myth, the exterior and eternally Outside where the foundations of the self, society, and reason are to be found – their fictional point of support. A fiction by which we all live. The songs of Nick Cave take us to the door of this place, the place at the heart of ritual where our time ceases to hold sway. They bid us enter.





                                                                                                                Copyright 2005 Peter Nesteruk