Where do Nick Cave’s death songs and murder ballads come from? Besides life? Why, from folklore. One may not easily think of Nick Cave, the gutterpunk become man of taste, as a student of folk music, but there’s no older narrative than the cautionary tale, it’s the oldest narratives that inform the blues and folk music that everything else is built upon. Cave has turned to mythology and fables many times in his writing, especially the referencing the flawed gods and humans of Greek myth. He uses some of those broadly shared reference points on Ghosteen, an album soaked through, by necessity, with the very personal. He draws the connection between the myths that trace back through millennia, and the very fresh myths that have been minted in living memory; the fable of the King of Rock and Roll may have been played out by people who still live, but it formed the arc of a cautionary tale that has been played by interchanging players ever since humans first learned how to form the events of their lives into interesting and informative narratives. The lesson is we’re all very small, even the Elvises among us, and we keep blundering into the same mistakes and enacting the same tragedies, over and over, and the only thing we know how to do is keep repeating the same stories about it.
I’ve been told that today is a holiday of some kind, celebrating outmoded hetero-normative ideations of romantic love, or sex in exchange for overpriced chocolate if you’re a being a realist about it. Clearly, this calls for a love song, and nobody writes love songs like Nick Cave does. Some people may find it disturbing, or unromantic at the very least, that a lot of Nick Cave’s love songs are also murder ballads. In the world of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, if you’re in love, you’re very likely to kill or to be killed about it, which… well, have you read the news lately? People really enjoy doing murder, apparently, usually male on female. Reading into the way we talk about “romance”, how we define it, and what actions we associate with it, we see subtextual patterns of implied violence and the implicit normalization of abusive behavior. The humble murder ballad is simply that same violent subtext, writ large and explicit. Perhaps, in the service of essential truthiness, murder ballads are the only real and true love songs. There is, of course, a middle ground between the insipid and the bloody, a way of writing about love without anyone dying, and yet without being willfully obtuse about the subject.
Here is part two (out of four) of the best records of 2019. As I said before, it’s been an unusually good year, and it’s an unusually long and diverse list. There are new works from old favorites and new favorites from new discoveries. I tried to cover as many bases as I could
1. Ghosteen – Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds
Nick Cave continues to explore an emotional landscape of grief and hope, grappling with the death of his son and how, in the aftermath of a life-changing tragedy, to move forward as an artist. It is both depressing and as bracing as a dive into frozen water.
2. Heard It In a Past Life – Maggie Rogers
3. Help Us Stranger – The Raconteurs
Like a lot of fans, I’d just about given up hope that Jack White would bring The Raconteurs back together. But here they are, and it sounds like no time has passed. Except for being, of course, a little bit older and wiser, it’s the same folksy roots rock than we expect from a Third Man product.
4. I Am Easy To Find – The National
5. Ilana (The Creator) – Mdou Moctar
Every year, thousands of records are released by artists all over the world that never connect with audiences outside their own local niche. But every once in a while an artist emerges who transcends genre. Mdou Moctar, of Niger, combines Taureg and Berber musical traditions with psychedelic rock reminiscent of Hendrix and Santana, making a melting-pot of an album with global appeal.
6. In the End – The Cranberries
The Cranberries were one of the definitive alternative rock bands of the 90’s, but in the decades since, they had largely been forgotten. It took the death of singer Dolores O’Riordan to get them back in the spotlight, and this posthumous album is a reminder of why they should, by all rights, have stayed popular.
7. The Lion King: The Gift – Beyonce
The Lion King remake may have been an exercise in gratuitous CGI, but bringing Beyonce on board was the best decision the Disney studio ever made. Bey’s companion album couldn’t be further away from the schlocky show tunes Elton John and Tim Rice cooked up in 1994. Leaning on uptempo Afropop, it showcases messages of positivity, courage and empowerment that are accessible enough for kiddos who loved the movie and sophisticated enough for adults who love Beyonce.
8. Love + Fear – Marina
After a short hiatus, Marina Diamandis dropped the “Diamonds” from her stage name, and moved in new, more intimate direction. Ditching the high-fructose pop she became famous for, Marina focuses on the songwriting chops she never got enough credit for. This record may not be uptempo enough for Froot lovers, but fans will recognize a more mature version of the vulnerable/witty singer, and will luxuriate in her amazing vocals.
9. LSD – Labrinth, Sia & Diplo
I love it when huge pop stars follow up their huge successes with something totally unexpected. Sia had a very great couple of years, and she followed up her string of hits by forming a supergroup with Labrinth and Diplo. Like the best supergroups it brings out the best in the supers. It’s the irreverent, fun, one-off album that keeps superstars from taking themselves too seriously.
10. No Treasure But Hope – Tindersticks
Nick Cave really makes marriage sound like a life sentence with no chance of parole, although, by all accounts, he has a lovely one himself. Well, for many people, that’s exactly what it is. For anyone who looks at ideal models of romance and sees a life-sucking bottomless void, Nick Cave is your man, your guy, your guru, your creep at the door. He’s your ringmaster of why everything is bad and wrong. And that, perversely, makes the dark nights a little more comfortable, if not brighter.
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.