Arts and Entertainment

Murder in Music

Reading Time: 3 minutes

In the age of revival punk, so strong that any given street is stampeded by Doc Martens and the abundance of colored hair makes it look like tangled yarn from above, it is easy to forget the places where it all started. It is easy to forget about the nightclubs and bars where short riffs became iconic and alcohol poured in steadily like gasoline to keep everything functioning smoothly. An icon of the punk/goth genre, Nick Cave will be performing his most recent album (released in 2016) live at Barclays Center on October 26, which warrants a reexamination of his musical history.

While Cave was by no means the beginning of any punk era, he created his own genre of gothic rock that fueled other musical movements of the time. Starting from a childhood smelling of books and incense, gothic literature and Anglicism became part of the voice for a nation. Cave would grow up to write songs heard like perverse but beautiful poetry, as well as books, screenplays, and operas.

In high school during the 1970s, Nick Cave formed his first band, The Boys Next Door, which was all that was characteristic of punk music at the time. They would later metamorphosize into the band Birthday Party and release their hit album “Junkyard” in 1982 in London. The songs were loud and frantic, with elements that sounded like beating on trash cans or screaming with nails in your mouth. Deeply personal in a subtle sort of way, the music contained lines such as “two dead marines, standing in a row” (“Junkyard”) that were blunt enough to warrant emotion from the listener. This, combined with the repeated words like “king,” “honey,” and “sac,” creates a visceral feeling of being surrounded in sounds and lyrics that don't quite mean anything on their own.

Birthday Party soon broke up, and a space opened up for more of the same punk rock, but what filled it was completely new. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds was formed, blending epic with poetry and disturbing fairy tales with lessons in morality and mortality. The band grappled with death most commonly, creating eerie storylike songs that executed characters swiftly, death being just another tool to carry out justice or make a story progress. The most notable example of such songs can found in the classic album, “Nick Cave’s Murder Ballads,” which told the chilling stories of carnage, often through an enigma of a female lead (the singer changing from song to song). The wispy and airy voice of the woman would combine with Cave’s own dark and brooding method of speak-singing to create an endlessly disturbing dichotomy.

It is the band’s most recent album, “Skeleton Trees,” (2016) that is being performed in Brooklyn this month on its second tour (along with a few other classics). While still dealing with the perplexity of death, this time the album takes on a humble attitude, as it was completed after Cave’s son plummeted from the cliffs of Brighton, England in a tragic accident at the meager age of 15. Right from the album cover, you can tell that these songs don't deal with death in the same almost arrogant tone that they had before. The cover art is lacking, being comprised of a technological green font on an entirely black background; simple, somber, and completely unlike the eccentric and stimulating covers of any other album.

The actual songs, each with a cryptic title such as “Magneto” or “Rings of Saturn,” have that same sense of disturbing genius that accompanies his other pieces. However, this time, the vocals seem to almost drown in the atmospheric and lilting instrumentals. From what you can make out, there is talk of fate and the unknown; visuals of cages and slumber. The lyrics themselves, phrases such as “with my voice, I am calling you” (a theme that Cave repeats several times in the song “Jesus Alone”) seem to loop and get twisted around until they don't quite make sense, perhaps attributing to the feeling of real loss and grief that is apparent throughout the work. Other songs, such as “Girl in Amber,” contain the same sort of female enigma so popular in his earlier songs; however, this time, she doesn't speak but rather he describes her as being “trapped forever, spinning down the hall,” giving yet another feeling of speechlessness that might be associated with deep grief. Very simply, the album is devastatingly sensitive but so strangely beautiful that you are forced to consider why you are so drawn to such obvious tortured grief.

While not fun or even completely musically satisfying, Cave’s songs are best listened to on long walks, and you don’t ever totally get it. But that's what makes it so incredible. It’s music that is closer to literature in its form and it blends the two in such a perfect ratio that the manner can't help but be repeated. Today we see bands such as “The Ministry of Wolves” and “Tenement Halls” reusing the formula of blending story with song. With the resurgence of such themes, it is important to consider the past and revisit the beginnings of an era—to consider Nick Cave again.