Nick Cave and Gene Pitney hardly seem to occupy the same universe, but it appears that they have at least one thing in common: they both have an ear for a grand romantic love song. In Nick Cave’s world, of course, romance isn’t romance without blood, filth and tragedy. When he promises “Scarlet for me and scarlet for you” he’s not talking about a nice corsage. But when he picks an apparently sunshiny love song by a sunshiny pop singer like Gene Pitney, he does it without a trace of irony. You can make fun of Pitney and the edgeless pop music he recorded in the 60’s, when the boundaries between edgy and square were battlefields. A well made love song, when sung from the heart, rings true when a guy with not one hair out of place delivers it, and it rings equally true when delivered by a guy who looks like he crawled out of a dumpster.
I’ve been listening to a lot of 80’s music lately – more so than usual – and, well, you all know what “80’s music” sounds like. I don’t have to explain to you how the 80’s were aggressively pop oriented and coated in many saturated shades of chartreuse, fuchsia and aquamarine. Then there was the obligatory kickback and rebellion, and – deep drumroll – the birth of the goth movement, created by and for people who felt that music was in dire need of more black lipstick, heroin and murder. Nobody stood in starker contrast to everything MTV friendly and candy colored than Nick Cave, a sepulchral creep whose exploits as a gutter punk soon became legendary. He was the ultimate alternative to the Aqua Net crowd, with the sickest imagination, the raggedest wardrobe, and the overall vibe of a hungry and mange-eaten street dog. (The coiffure looked like the result of months of rolling around in junkie effluvium, but I’m guessing he used the same damn Aqua Net as everybody else.) The murder-junkie aesthetic must have been a real shock to the system of anyone who stumbled upon a record invitingly titled Kicking Against the Pricks. I imagine a lot of people picked it up for the title alone, and their lives were never the same after.
Nick Cave’s Skeleton Tree is such a cold plunge into despair, it feels wrong to be listening to it on a sunshiny Sunday morning. Cave has always been a downer, from the circumstances of his birth to the blessing of his name. But this time he has outdone himself. Through no choice of his own, it must be said. It was ugly karma indeed that struck the man who’d always so gleefully imagined stories of tragedy and mayhem. Nick Cave, like a Biblical or ancient Greek hero, is mourning a son. Personal circumstances are often too nifty an explanation for whatever twisted paths an artist’s creativity takes, but if there’s one thing that’s unlikely to be underestimated, it’s untimely death. What, if anything, Nick Cave will find to write about after this, time will tell.
Little ballerinas are the last thing you would expect in a Nick Cave video, and if you have any familiarity with Nick Cave at all, you would expect the little ballerinas to come to some ungodly end. But sometimes a child is just a child. And sometimes a Nick Cave song is just a love song with little to no murder. One way that Cave surprised the world after his heroin-and-Berlin punk rock beginnings – besides not dying and developing a taste for three-piece suits – was establishing himself as a master of the stately piano ballad. He has since produced an enviable body of piano ballads both morbid and perfectly romantic, and it’s obvious that his silky baritone is suited to nothing better than a lone Steinway and a solo spotlight.