Nick Hornby once said he didn’t like Bob Dylan, really. They just owned “Bringing it all back home”, “Blood on the tracks”, “Highway 61 Revisited” and “Blonde on Blonde”. But, he then says, anyone that’s interested in modern pop music owns those albums. Owning a Nick Cave album is a similar experience.
Years on it’s a similar scenario when referring to the former Birthday Party singer. Just about anyone interested in what happened to music for the last decades, and even more so those with ambitions to write, will own or have heard at least a few Nick Cave albums. Others will outright have the ambition to follow in singer’s footsteps. But Cave’s killed the game for them a long time ago. Here are five ways in which Cave has cleared the poker table, destroyed the way back and left the mark too high for most future songwriters to dream of reaching.
1. He constantly evolved as an artist where others would have rested on their laurels
Nick Cave started as the singer of a great post-punk band, the Birthday Part, where great ideas were usually buried under the cover of plenty of noise and violence. As his abilities and confidence grew, so did Cave’s vision for his art. The sound of his famous backing band, the Bad Seeds, has evolved through the years to accompany his many and varied ideas.
Cave’s initial combative musical ideas have not changed their meaning but rather changed shape. The Australian progressed as a singer and added further depth to his songwriting. Especially Cave learning to play the piano changed his creative process and introduced softer, ballad type songs that the Bad Seeds had to learn to compliment.
And whenever things threatened to become predictable, Cave didn’t fear change. He could either pursue writing a double album, score the music to his own audiobook, create a grimy garage rock band, move back to confessional writing backed by lush instrumentation. Cave refused to become stale. While he has put out a lot of work, he has never settled into comfortable mediocrity.
“If you look around, complacency is the great disease of your autumn years, and I work hard to prevent that,” Cave says.
2. He has been successful at writing lyrics and music, as well as novels and movie scripts
Cave has often mentioned the influence of serious literature on his creative outlook and his ambition for his writing to share a similar scope. The Australian native has always been particularly ambitious about his creations.
In 1989 he released his first novel “And the ass saw the angel”. Reviews for his first book release were positive and the novel has gone on to be translated into several languages. He released his second novel “The Death of Bunny Munro” to considerable interest in 2009.
Cave’s poetry and lyrics have also found their way into book form through to two volumes “King Ink” and “Complete Lyrics: 1978–2006”. In 2015, his writings collected from sick bags notations from airports across North America found their way into being published as “The Sick Bag song”.
Nick Cave is also a successful screenwriter, penning the screenplay for big budget movies such as Lawless and the Proposition. And as the singer confessed, he was once asked to write the screenplay for a proposed sequel to the Gladiator. (Supposedly Cave’s initial draft included his Roman character murdering an infant version of Christ, prompting the studio officials to turn down the script. Nick Cave is certainly not one to change his vision to better his career.)
3. He has covered classic artistic themes and helped create a modern mythology
Clearly, Cave has not been ashamed to tackle serious artistic themes. And unlike many of today’s most promising writers he hasn’t done so ironically or without empathy. Rather, he has seen his work as a continuation of some of the work that has influenced him.
When directors offered to make movies about Nick Cave, he has taken the opportunity to talk less about himself as a person, his daily habits, life on the road etc. as most bands on such occasions, but rather delved further into the Nick Cave mythology.
His themes which often include violence, betrayal, and murder, have always been treated in a way that seems to share more with religious texts, old movie scripts, and classic novels. Cave has talked about the process of creating a world of his own in which little aspects of everyday reality are included. Few artists have had the ability to create their own universe, then patiently add to the creatures and stories that inhabit it.
4. He has remained consistent
Some of the greatest songwriters are known for the work created during their peak years. Some fade away, often destroying themselves in the process. Some chase the excitement of their youth, usually with mixed results. And others, simply soldier on, with every new release a slight disappointment, and a remainder of their best days.
Cave, who reportedly took the decision to rent out an office many years ago, visiting it each day at the same hour, works like an employee to his own creative ambitions producing work every single day. As a consequence, Nick Cave has released art at a constant pace. Cave has also clearly remained enraptured with the process of creating art. The vast majority of his releases have been received very well by fans and critics.
Cave has remained vibrant. He has remained angry. His new work always seems to be able to compete with that of much younger artists in terms of urgency and scope. For fans of art from around the world, Nick Cave’s signature on a project, be it a movie, book or album, is a guarantee of quality.
5. He has survived it all
The literary and rock worlds abound with romantic stories of individuals moving close to the edge, producing interesting work, then, most oft than not, self-destroying. There are also the sadder stories of artists becoming casualties of their own lifestyle.
Although Cave is known to have indulged in habits that could have easily affected his work and health (and we know from his own admission), he has stirred the ship around. Once he managed to become healthy he committed himself to his work and he has maintained this until today. His work is rich with tales of disaster and misery, but these do not seem to step outside of his imaginary world into that of his real life.
Cave’s family was put under significant distress recently through a terrible event in family’s life. A visibly distraught Cave has managed to channel this into work full of empathy and respectful towards the events.
This is the most significant aspect, I believe, about Nick Cave’s evolution as an artist. He has survived it. And while it has let some marks, it seems that generally, it has not affected his personality to such an extent that it affects his ability to produce great work.
Nick Cave is a character of his own creation. His legacy has been constructed brick by brick, through many years. He continues to inspire artists around the world. Cave has become so much of a myth that it feels impossible to try and challenge him on any of the
Cave has created the myth around himself so well and his work (for the most part) is beyond criticism, that he has become an artist that is almost impossible to be challenged. It’s hard to imagine the next Cave. Nobody has the energy to do it, let alone the creative abilities. Nick Cave is still on his feet and swinging wildly.