Whenever Mom caught the teenaged me mooning about, she’d put one hand on her forehead and lay the other on the table, palm up: “I, too, am a Suffering Romantic Poet. Woe is me. Now do the dishes.” She was usually right. Most despair doesn’t deserve the name and is often dispatched with a doughnut, a bit of loud music, and some jazzercise.
Most, but not all. For those times when only darkness will bring out the light, there are people like Dr. Nick Cave, High Romantic. There is little distinction between most High Romantics, be they Celine Dion, Sigur Rós, or Nick Cave. They’re all mannered artists with unique voices and dodgy lyrics, but that’s not the important commonality. Romantics are primarily functional, like James Bond movies and hot dogs. When you’re in the mood, nothing else will do. (Personality, texture, and skill all take a powder when the functional functions.) It’s beside the point to say Nick Cave’s late-Elvis hummana-hummana love action is overdone, any more than you would say Vicodin is a lousy picker-upper. That’s not why you take it.
In the introduction to The Complete Lyrics 1978-2002 (Penguin), Cave says, “I have written about 200 songs, the bulk of which I would say were Love Songs. Love Songs, and therefore, by my definition, sad songs.” He goes on to discuss how “sadness of ‘duende’ needs space to breathe. Melancholy hates haste and floats in silence.” The idea that dark truth is better than light truth goes all the way back to 1645 at least, when John Milton gave grudging props to the ‘lincked sweetness’ of easy, sonorous words in his poem “L’Allegro” but reserved his real love for “these pleasures Melancholy give” in “Il Pensoroso.”
This mistaken conflation of the Bummed-Out Individual Experience with the General Truth sapped much of the vigor of rock in the ’90s (out with the Stooges as reference points, in with Leonard Cohen). So much so that, at this point, any rock music that kills the moonlight feels like a Good Thing. The fact remains that music, for most of us, much of the time, is used for comfort. Bad things happen to everyone, allatime, and Timbaland can’t distract you from Donald Rumsfeld forever.
The morning after a Kafka day spent marching toward a rally we never reached and a night spent drinking with people from another planet, Nocturama was a balm. Cave’s molasses ballads take you to a warm spot where the big bad world’s cynicism gets disabled and the numb parts thaw. Well, of course. In Cave’s world love is all around, surviving despite every forecast, and if the lyrics favor love’s labors lost, these are welcome topics after the negligence, selfishness, and 1000 other mundane indignities that sent us into the arms of a Romantic in the first place. Heartbreak is goddamn lemonade next to nothingness.
But Cave’s routine works when it works because of the Bad Seeds. “Still in Love” on Nocturama is rumpled and resonant enough to put across the title (which says it all), and on “Babe I’m on Fire,” the Seeds rock a 14-minute rumpus indebted to Cave’s very good and not very sad work in his fabulous ’80s band the Birthday Party. (He used to be funny—check “A Dead Song.”) When the Cavester gets too studied, the Seeds counter with something raw and hard. But remember—the singer leads the band, and the balance between his theatrical and their intuitive is no 15-year-long coincidence. The Seeds’ shambling cabaret sound was the foundation Cave needed beneath him so he could leap out toward the improbable. Use only as directed.
Cave is Katie Couric next to Michael Gira, a musician for whom humor and moderation are useless. In the early ’80s, he started the ultimate all-or-nothing band, Swans, who actually made good on downtown’s fascination with terror and power. The standard Swans approach was two basses, an unidentified mass of guitar, and Gira’s baritone howl all laying into a drastically slow riff for what felt like an hour. No fun, my babe, no fun, but also kind of beautiful. The excess might suggest a romantic, but Gira’s always been a puritan. His early lyrics combined the disembodied pronouns of Jenny Holzer’s slogans with critical flags (rape, flesh, power, slaves, cops). Repeat it like liturgy and the result is performance-art rock that industrial goths watered down for big bux throughout the ’90s: “Unconscious repression degrades the real thing/You can’t kill a criminal need/When you’re polluted with fear you need comfort/You can’t kill what you don’t see.” My brother went to New York and all he got was this lousy art-rock record!
Everyone else sounded tentative next to the Swans, even if you wanted nothing to do with them. Swans’ ability to return every measure like an ox as strong as the ox they had been five minutes before was no joke. That claustrophobic uni-riff punishment, which mirrored Gira’s nightmares of physical confinement, had run its course by the late ’80s. So he guided Swans toward something like modern plainchant, a move that suggested repentance for all the tinnitus Swans had caused the first time. Swans ended in 1997, and Gira has fused the two phases for his current band, the Angels of Light, who sound not unlike an amateur community orchestra—guitars submerged but grim determination intact. Everything Is Good Here/Please Come Home, the third AOL album, follows 2001’s near perfect How I Loved You. Gira’s voice is a more powerful instrument than Cave’s, able to go credibly from Barry White implications to unchecked hollering. His lyrics still face the horror, and the subject pronoun is generally “she,” but he’s traded abstractions for people: “She waited too long, then she waited some more. Counting the hours, how much can you hate? And what does she feel, when she finally breaks?”
Wonderfully unpredictable, the Angels of Light sound a bit like a grouchy Eastern European folk band, or the CliffsNotes version of Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Just when their plodding begins to, you know, plod, a tack piano or harmonica surges up and over the edge of the mix to keep hope alive. (If anyone was going to score the Red Army’s march toward Berlin, it would be the Angels.) The album’s success depends on a great ambient room sound courtesy of Martin Bisi, the guy who recorded a lot of ’80s groovy ghoulie music the first time around.
Gira’s move from Calvinism to Protestantism, so to speak, was a tipping-point move; adding a little air to his vision has made it geometrically easier for the rest of us to join in. He’s playing chicken with some bad, bad forces, driven by the need to figure out how redemption works and what pain is for. They’re the same questions he’s always asked, but he’s listening for the answers now. Whether Gira’s religion is better than Cave’s valentine depends on what ails you. Consult your doctor.