Australia’s Nick Cave is a badass. Today’s song is one of his most enthralling rave ups, full of the kind of excess Cave so often courts, but within the “constraints” of a very tonic theme: beseeching the Muse for inspiration. Those who know Cave’s earlier works, from the Eighties, know that he can sprawl and ramble and move effortlessly from the turgid to the hypnotic to the unhinged and the soulful. He can be a very effective lyricist but one suspects that his lyrics are performance based, produced in the heat of the song. One wonders what “emotion recollected in tranquility” could mean for someone like Nick Cave.
Or rather, the Nick Cave before 1997’s The Boatman’s Call. That’s when his writing took a turn toward something, to my mind, more subtle. I’m not saying I wasn’t moved by a tour de force like “The Carny,” or “The Mercy Seat,” or the raunch’n’roll of “Deanna,” but that Boatman showed Cave moving, fully mature, into Leonard Cohen territory. And that was mighty satisfying at that time for yours truly.
Cave made few bad moves after that album, though Nocturama (2003) was a step down from the convincing and even fearfully good No More Shall We Part (2001). But in 2004 he gave us a double album that brought the raving Cave and the more wistful Cave together in one package: one called Abattoir Blues, the other called The Lyre of Orpheus. Today’s song is from Abattoir Blues.
“There She Goes My Beautiful World” is, for my money, one of the great songs of the last decade. It rocks, it flings words about like a dervish, it’s got wailing backup singers, it has a stomping rhythm that just seems to keep building from a steady steam. It doesn’t have horns, but you might think you hear them anyway. Celestial horns maybe.
The song opens with what sound like incantations of natural wonders to illustrate “my beautiful world”—“the dark and deep, enchanted sea / The trembling moon and the stars unfurled.” A re-enchanted landscape announces the idea that the poet, as Keats said, is “e’en to frenzy bold.” Cave is that kind of poet here, but he’s bemoaning his lack of inspiration. The key line, flung out again and again, is “send that stuff on down to me.” He even paints the picture of his subjection before his tantalizing Muse: “I will kneel at your feet / I will kneel at your door / I will rock you to sleep / I will roll on the floor” and “I will be your slave / I will peel you grapes / Up on your pedestal / with your ivory and apes.” Anything’s better than “lying here with nothing in my ears.”
I know the feeling, Nick, and thanks for giving it such fervent expression. Added to all the self-laceration for the sake of stirring his forbidding Lady, Nick gives us quick glimpses of some other sufferers in the name of art and ideas. Who but Nick Cave would pen a verse like this:
Karl Marx squeezed his carbuncles while writing Das Kapital
And Gauguin, he buggered off, man, and went all tropical
Phillip Larkin, he stuck it out in a library in Hull
And Dylan Thomas, he died drunk in St. Vincent’s hospital
There you have it. Kind of in a “this little piggy had none” tone, these giants of their particular field get held up as examples of the variety of fates for the dedicated worker in the world of ideas; driven by vision, we can say they all were. And that’s what Nick’s singer is desperately pleading for: “I just want to move the world.” But Nick doesn’t just amuse us with fables of the fabled, he also performs an apostrophe, seemingly in persona propria, aimed at his lady love, who “weren’t much of a muse / But then I weren’t much of a poet.” Still, he’s adamant that “if you’ve got a field that won’t yield, / then get up now and hoe it.” Well, we should all be outstanding in our field.
Nick Cave and his band, The Bad Seeds (sans Blixa Bargeld this time out, for the first time), are outstanding in their way. Few would have the panache, the moxie, the cheeky balls to pull this song off. Did I mention that it also includes St. John of the Cross and Johnny Thunders in the same verse?
Nick Cave is a poet of the soapbox carnival variety. He veers every now and then into territory where Tom Waits is king but Cave steals in and out as a mercurial showman in his own right. His heart is darker than Waits’, and he’s less likely to lean on the rhetoric of the old ceremonies than Leonard Cohen does, but he’s capable of songs as fiercely “independent as a hog on ice,” to use a Waits line. Nick Cave seems to have become word-drunk via the Gospels before anything else and that shows in his fire and brimstone sense of the world we live in. We’re souls walking through various trials by fire and the poets among us are the ones who feel this the most and try to communicate some of the grandeur and some of the pathos of our plight. Like Waits and Cohen, Cave is rather sui generis. You won’t find many like him, and in the world of “the popular song,” he walks a path of righteousness for our sakes. You won’t see him selling out. His very soul depends upon his song and in this one he lifts, again and again, his paean of praise: “there she goes my beautiful world.”