The legendary German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who made 41 feature films before kicking the bucket at the age of just 37, once said, “every decent director has only one subject, and finally only makes the same film over and over again.” That quote can essentially be applied to any other artform: any decent musician, author or painter, eventually makes work about one subject, and one subject only.
In Nick Cave’s case, it’s love and how it effects our relationship to the world around us – not just in the way it can connect us deeply and intimately to our loved ones, to friends, and strangers, but also in the way it can counterintuitively push and pull us apart. As he has aged, his recent albums, from 2013’s Push The Sky Away onwards, have moved further and further inwards, towards the interior of his psyche and the landscape of his relationships to his family, his audience and his fanbase. Within that interiority, they have also moved further upwards into the skies, becoming ever more spacious and open. Songs from 2019’s Ghosteen, his most recent Bad Seeds album, and this year’s Carnage, a duo album with Warren Ellis, form most of the setlist tonight. Freeform and incantatory, vast in sound yet intimate in scope, they sound like mirages rather than concrete ‘songs’.
In the context of tonight’s set, performed with Ellis, a trio of backing singers and percussionist/bassist Johnny Hostile, these songs, fragile and sensitive, are set free. The thrumming synths that wash over the opening numbers – Spinning Song, Bright Horses and Waiting For You, the trio that also opens Ghosteen – seem to hold the audience in a semi-stunned collective silence, as if we’re not supposed to focus on something so singular for so long anymore.
The switches into the tenser, more charged songs that form Carnage, including White Elephant and Hand Of God, bring electricity and catharsis to St David’s Hall, and a reminder that this man is also the frontman of The Bad Seeds, one of the world’s most devastatingly tough live acts. But those moments of catharsis, aided by Ellis’ gesticulations on his Korg synth, as he’s surrounded by a small army of effects pedals remain fleeting.
Dips into the Bad Seeds catalogue beyond Ghosteen are rare. The encore sees beautiful renditions of Into My Arms and Henry Lee; previously, God Is In The House and I Need You get airings. Billing this as Cave and Ellis, rather than the Bad Seeds, frees up the two to wander wherever they wish with the songs, with less pressure to play the hits.
There’s the sense of these performances being essential to both musicians, a much-needed release after so long pent up in isolation, lockdown, and uncertainty. The nigh-pathological need to connect with others and build something bigger than ourselves seems to root through the set. In his hands, simple platitudes – “this morning is amazing and so are you”; “I love my baby and my baby loves me” – become mantras, beacons of hope in the darkness. He’s earned the right to make those platitudes, his life’s work a long evolving journey to that very simple, yet very powerful statement: “I love you.”
Multiple times I was moved to tears, Cave’s intonations reaching deep into my soul, my own lifelong relationship to his songs – at this point they’re more like old friends – elevated by his very real presence. None more so than in two thunderous renditions of the two epic songs which form the back end of Ghosteen: its title track and Hollywood. Not a dry eye in the house, as they used to say.
St David’s Hall, Cardiff, Sun 26 Sept
words FEDOR TOT photos NOEL GARDNER
Events are Back!
If you’re running or promoting events in Wales, list them here for FREE.