It’s Pentecost Sunday. Which, if you don’t know, is the day, in the words of Nick Cave from today’s song, “when Christ returns to his loved ones.” After death, he appeared in the locked upper room, and thereafter the apostles were able to “speak in tongues”—which means: in the language of whomever they were addressing. Nice bit, there.
Anyway, “Brompton Oratory” suits the day because it’s a song in which the singer attends Mass on Pentecost at the church in London known by the song’s title. It’s an interesting example of Cave—who likes to use religious imagery—combining what is sometimes called the sacred and the profane. The album, The Boatman’s Call, is something of an anomaly in Nick’s oeuvre, being piano-based tunes, mostly somewhat morose. Which is probably why it’s almost my favorite Nick Cave album. Not only that, but his lyrics tread close to Leonard Cohen terrain, and that’s no small compliment.
The song begins with the speaker entering the “great shadowed vault” to hail the Pentecostal morn. Just another guy going to church, I guess. There he hears the Gospel reading from Luke 24, the description of Christ appearing after death to his faithful (but somewhat wavering) disciples; it’s interesting that Nick describes them as “his loved ones”—which stretches the meaning of the reading beyond the Gospel story itself, to consider the personal meaning of the story. After death, the departed appears to those who are mourning him. The return is at issue here, much like a “return” to church or faith or, which it would be for me, a return to the youthful disposition to such things, long gone. We’re in the mood to take another look, arguably. “Think that it’s alright for some.”
The speaker wishes he were made of stone (like the stone apostles) so that he would not have “to see / A beauty impossible to define”—which could be the mystery of faith—and “a beauty impossible to believe” (so much for faith). “A beauty impossible to endure / The blood imparted in little sips.” Here’s the moment of Eucharistic communion, drinking the wine/blood, where the beauty one can’t endure is the beauty, we assume, of sacrifice, of the death that begets eternal life. If you believe it. And Nick has us wondering whether he does or not, whether he’s going to experience the epiphanic moment that makes it all true.
Then he gives the profane moment: “the smell of you still on my hands / As I bring the cup up to my lips.” Here, at the moment of sipping from the chalice filled with wine/Christ’s blood, the speaker is thinking—reminded by the sexual scent of his lover—of sipping nectar from her labia, a different kind of “cup.” Then comes the kicker: “No god up in the sky / And no devil beneath the sea”—the latter line going up in register, drawn out to indicate the tension and breaking out of the religious trance—“Can do the job that you did, baby, / Of bringing me to my knees.” And with that Nick gives us the ol’ “religion of the body” bit, in which the woman’s very physical charms promise salvation, which makes the idea of a beauty impossible to define and endure suddenly shift from the transcendental to the very, very worldly. In another song from the early Nineties, “(I’ll Love You Till) The End of the World,” Nick kneels and actually prays “not to the Lord above, but to you, waiting in your dress of blue.” It seems sincere and, well, let’s hope that works for him.
In the end he sits on the stone steps of the Oratory, “with nothing much to do / Alone and exhausted, baby, / By the absence of you.” And that is the final jab that really abides with me. While we might suppose that a religious person who substitutes faith in his babe’s beauty for faith in his God would be perhaps downtrodden by the “absence of God” in his life, and, if he never believed, then that absence has been all the more mortal and essential as a lifelong lack, but, instead, he’s bluesing over the absence of the woman he can still taste and smell but can’t have. She exists (God might not), but she ain’t here. As Woody Allen’s character says in Manhattan, “We don’t know if there’s a God, but there are girls, not in some heavenly domain but right here on earth.”
The heaven of her sex? Perhaps, and perhaps the Pentecostal message is that one must speak with tongue at that particular cup, but, even if so, there’s a deep melancholy to the song, a story of a man alone returning to the familiar story of Christ, a figure betrayed, returned to speak of keeping the faith, a story ignored or betrayed again by not quite a refusal of communion but rather a complication of it, extending the gesture of salvation to the out of body experience that sex, oddly enough and paradoxically enough, can sometimes be. I believe Nick knows about that and so this song, in its subtle evocation of the apostasy of a believer, is one of the best on the album. But only if it matters.
Hail this joyful day’s return.