Nick Cave, it has often been said, is one of the most ‘literary’ rock lyricists working today. Now, I generally think that literariness and rock music do not make for mutually satisfying bedfellows: they are not what we would call considerate lovers. It is wrong to try to read popular music in literary terms: it simply doesn’t work. Wrenching lines out of the proper context of the song, taking no account of intonation and prosody, not to mention their fit with the music itself, can only be a fruitless exercise. For that reason, I shall now proceed to read Cave's œuvre in precisely those terms. No Youtube or mp3 links to be found here.
In the song ‘Green Eyes’ (which is, in truth, one of the weakest on that brilliant album The Boatman’s Call) Cave pastiched a sonnet by the sixteenth-century poet Louise Labé (or not by her, if you go by Mireille Huchon’s recent study Louise Labé: une créature de papier): a line from Labé’s sonnet ‘Baise m’encor, rebaise moy et baise’ became ‘Kiss me again, rekiss me and kiss me’ – and I won’t quote the rest of the verse, in the interest of keeping this blog family-friendly. The reason why the song itself is so mediocre (at least by the standards of that album) is perhaps not directly related to its literariness. But overt or over-elaborate erudition and poetic allusion certainly do not sit comfortably in the four-minute rock song.
In one song on a later album, The Lyre of Orpheus, Cave managed to reference John Wilmot, Vladimir Nabokov and St John of the Cross, all in one verse. Sounds faintly absurd, and indeed, in context, the effect (which is, I trust, intentional) prompts amusement rather than admiration.
Here’s why: Cave’s musical sensibility is resistant to the lyricism (in the proper sense) that his songs try to accommodate. He knows it, too. Here’s a verse from the track ‘More News from Nowhere’, on the latest album:
I said the sun rises and falls with youThe music has a tendency to stall poetic flights while they’re still taxiing on the runway. Even though Cave would much rather his lyrics be associated with the actual lyric poets (he is much more likely to approve Sappho as an influence than Bukowski: Sappho is perhaps the poet most often referenced in his songs, and anyway, Bukowski ‘was a jerk’), he seems to be aware that there’s something there that’s not going to fly.
and various things about love
but a rising violence in me
cut all my circuits off
That is not to say that literary references cannot work in the context of the rock song. The new album Dig Lazarus Dig!!! appears to have been in part modelled on episodes from the Odyssey: nothing unusual in that, the Odyssey has been fair game in popular culture for a long time now. The fourth track on the album, ‘Night of the Lotus Eaters’, flags up the Homeric subtext, but it’s in the final ‘More News from Nowhere’ that Cave packs in the allusions. The interesting thing about this track is in its back-references to Cave’s earlier work, with the ironic appearance of Deanna, once a muse, here distinctly unimpressed by Cave’s lyricism (and a ‘Miss Polly’ makes an appearance in the third verse…): it’s like a rock version of Paul Auster’s Travels in the Scriptorium – except nowhere near as ponderous and tediously self-regarding. It’s not hard to uncover the Homeric references in the song: Nausicaa, Polyphemus, Circe, the Sirens, Calypso, there’s even a mention of the ‘wine dark sea’.
But none of this is particularly heavy-handed, and it certainly doesn’t overwhelm the song (which is great, I think). It even manages some pretty nice poetry of its own, for example in this evocative image:
Betty X says: the light ain’t yours,The album’s title track, powered by a Stones-like riff, is a kind of modern take on the biblical story of the raising of Lazarus (as if you couldn’t have guessed that from the title). Here’s a sample (transcribing the orthography of the printed booklet):
And so much wind blew through her words
That I went rolling down the hall
For more news from nowhere…
i can hear chants & incantationsThese last two lines caused me to wonder whether the song had been distantly inspired by this passage in Samuel Beckett’s Murphy (which I discussed in another context here):
& some guy is mentioning me in his prayers!!!!!
I don’t know what it is
but there is definitely something going on upstairs
dig yourself, LAZARUS!!!!!
I!!!! WANT!!!!! Y/!!!!!! TO!!!!!!! DIG!!!!!!!!!!
well NEW YORK CITY, man
SAN FRANCISCO, LA (I don’t know)
Larry grew increasingly neurotic & obscene!!!!!!!
HE NEVER ASKED TO BE RAISED UP FROM THE TOMB!!!
no one ever actually asked him to forsake his DREAMS!!!
The melancholic’s melancholy, the manic’s fits of fury, the paranoid’s despair, were no doubt as little autonomous as the long fat face of a mute. Left in peace they would have been as happy as Larry, short for Lazarus, whose raising seemed to Murphy perhaps the one occasion on which the Messiah had overstepped the mark.Whether or not we’re giving Cave too much (or too little?) credit in imagining the song took its inspiration from a minor passage in an early Beckett work, we can at least say that the sentiment is the same.
In any case Cave, despite his reputation as a lyricist, has no shame in writing trashy, sing-along refrains that say nothing more than ‘Lie down here (and be my girl)’ or ‘We’re gonna have a real cool time tonight’.
But that’s OK: pop songs aren’t classical poetry, they have different lyrical demands. A writer of pop lyrics can’t really be accused of dealing in banalities and clichés, because, well, that’s what pop songs are supposed to deal in. The popular lyricists who are usually held up as the best (Cohen, Dylan) in my opinion wrote many more clunkers than good lines. Nobody can possibly convince me that ‘Go away now from my window/Leave at your own chosen speed’ has any other reason for existing than to accommodate a simplistic rhyme. Like so many of Dylan’s lines, it certainly has no poetic value in itself.
Try this one for size, from the excellent ‘Into my Arms’, the first track on The Boatman’s Call:
I don’t believe in an interventionist GodWhich, let’s face it, is crap, but it really does work perfectly in the song itself.
But I know, darling, that you do
But if I did I would kneel down and ask Him
Not to intervene when it came to you
As a counter example, consider this, from the (significantly less good) song ‘Nature Boy’:
I was just a boy when I sat downThose lines still have the ability to surprise me, even divorced from the context of their musical backing.
To watch the news on TV
I saw some ordinary slaughter
I saw some routine atrocity