Last night I was at one the national premieres of Nick Cave's One More Time With Feeling, (taking place across the UK and doubtless elsewhere too), a documentary directed by fellow Australian Andrew Dominik. The film as a spectacle would probably be pretty meaningless to anybody who doesn't have at least a passing interest in Cave's life and music and it seems almost obsolete to give it context before going on to write about what it made me feel but I'll do so anyway.
In July of last year, Cave's son Arthur, one of a pair of male twins, and just fifteen years old at the time, died, in the most tragic circumstances imaginable from a fall from the clifftops above Brighton where the Caves lived. The resultant level of media focus, speculation, base title tattle and intrusion was immense and escalated during the course of the inquest to the death, at a time of intense personal grief for Cave's family, friends and musical colleagues and also, it's fair to add, though obviously at an emotional remove, for those for whom his work has a central personal importance.
Given that Cave is an artist who has always focused throughout his musical career on the darkest themes imaginable - death, violence, dread and angst, (albeit generally accompanied by the blackest strains of humour), it seemed reasonable to wonder exactly what his next work would be like, given that it was almost inevitable that his son's death and the resulting grief and anguish experienced by those closest to him would be the subject matter that would inevitably inform it. Well now we know.
So this is what the film and its accompanying album Skeleton Tree, which is also available now, focus on, to an almost unbearably, intense and courageous degree. It's by no means an easy experience to watch nor is the music particularly easy to listen to, given its unavoidable, emotional subtext. Anybody who has experienced any significant personal trauma in their lives, (and this is the term of description Cave returns to again and again), will recognise the cocktail of conflicting and contradictory emotions which its main players express and which emerge at various points in the film. For this is a meditation, not only on death, but on every aspect of life too, the creative instinct, love, grief, pain, anger, humour, friendship, support. the urge to maintain control and ultimately perhaps, and we certainly hope so, the cleansing and consoling force of art itself, (though I suspect that Cave himself, as a deeply intelligent cynic, might contest that last suggestion).
I'd stick with it nevertheless, simply due to the sheer force and resonance of the musical pieces which punctuate the film of Cave and his band the Bad Seeds, working through and recording tracks for Skeleton Tree in the round in the studio (though of course they're surely simulated for the purposes of shooting the film). I should probably confess at this point that I haven't always been greatly taken by the records Cave has produced over the years. During the eighties for example, when he first emerged, originally with The Birthday Party and then solo or with The Bad Seeds, I much preferred the records of his contemporaries and compatriots The Go Betweens and The Triffids who were among my most important personal musical discoveries at that crucial formative time in my life when the music I fell in love with played a part in my construction of personal identity and sense of self. In terms of the immediate milieu that Cave was working in, which could broadly be defined as Gothic, (which both of the bands mentioned above touched on sometimes but certainly never fully operated within), The Gun Club and The Cramps also both meant a lot more to me.
By comparison at the time, Cave simply didn't appeal. I thought his darkness was a persona and a not desperately convincing one. I found the brushstrokes he traded in too crude and one dimensionally confrontational and really that perception of him as an artist has remained with me until comparatively recently, only really shifting in the last couple of years with exposure to his most recent work. Perhaps he's changed. Perhaps I have. Who's to know? Something certainly has.
That process of re-evaluation for me began with Cave's last excursion into music documentary, 20,000 Days on Earth which came out in 2014 and which I thought was a wonderfully crafted piece of work. It was nevertheless still cleverly guarded, presented through a carefully constructed artistic persona and maintained a creative distance and privacy that is obviously something Cave guards jealously.
There is no such refuge available for him here. The emotions on display here are raw and plainly apparent. Both whenever Cave, his wife Susie Bick or Arthur's twin Earl are onscreen but also in the intensely committed, musical performances of Cave and also from the Bad Seeds, each of whom seem to be stretching every nerve and sinew in support of their frontman in the beautifully shot, (in stark black and white), musical sections. Frankly I've never seen musical performances quite like them, where a whole band seems to be spellbound en mass in grief almost as if engaged in some ritualistic rite of passage against an oncoming blizzard in the hope that they can find a way through all this. Of course Cave, as a deeply self-aware performer, will recognise and is playing on the cultural and literary parallels of this. He knows his Bible and Greek Myth, the influences of which resonate as so often in his work through the songs here. Throughout the film he attempts to maintain a balancing act between enormous creative ambition and modesty about his realisation of his place in the grand scheme of things. As he himself suggests at a point in the film there are times in life where language fails you in terms of describing our emotional journey and perhaps music is ultimately its best expression.
So, if you have any interest in Cave and his work, do see the film. It's something quite special. I won't be watching it again or listening to the music much, good as both are, because to immerse yourself in it too much might feel like dwelling intrusively on others' grief, like the unknown mourner at a family funeral not commented on by the grieving relatives, who didn't actually know the deceased. Nevertheless I think both Skeleton Tree and One More Time With Feeling surely represent career highs, both for Cave, his musical accomplice Warren Ellis and everyone else involved. Also, it doesn't seem exploitative for a moment. Rather an act of true love. Perhaps its greatest achievement. Respect to all concerned.