Six Of The Best: Nick Cave’s Love Songs
Nick Cave’s love songs are inextricable from his other favourite subjects – death and religion.
Even at their most purely focused, there is always some sort of shadow on the periphery. His father, an English teacher, died unexpectedly when Cave was 19. Writing became a release, a way to fill the void; while love became his salvation, a way of communing with God.
While in his later years Cave has shed some of the tempestuousness of youth, his writing has always dealt in extremes, for this is the language of the heart.
Any worthwhile love plumbs fathoms in every conceivable direction, and Cave knows it is a high stakes game, one not possible without the potential for heartbreak. In his writing, love needs sadness just as the light needs the dark.
There are many types of love song, though they deal primarily with sex, contentment, longing and loss. Cave is a master at bottling both the sacred and the profane, mixed with his usual Biblical and folkloric imagery. For the best take on this subject, one must turn to ‘The Secret Life of the Love Song’, a lecture written and performed by Cave himself at the 1998 Vienna Poetry Festival. For now, these are a few of the best Nick Cave love songs.
Lime Tree Arbour
If one were to split the Bad Seeds’ career into two halves, The Boatman’s Call would be the fulcrum. Its arresting minimalism and tender-hearted ruminations on love stand in stark contrast to the first act of their career, which culminated a year earlier in the bloodbath of Murder Ballads. While Cave had already shown us many a time that he knew how to write a fine ballad, he had never dedicated a whole album to this type of quiet softness. Most of the songs feature only piano, bass, and Cave exploring the nuances of his own baritone. ‘Lime Tree Arbour’ is Cave at his most classicist – verse chorus verse chorus filled with unadorned yet powerful language. The chorus speaks to the type of omnipresent love most often found in the New Testament (“There is a hand that protects me/ And I do love her so”). While some have seen the ‘boatman’ as Charon – the ferryman of the dead in Greek mythology – this is the rare Cave love song where sadness plays only the most minor of roles.
Into My Arms
The lead track on The Boatman’s Call, ‘Into My Arms’ is one of a number of songs on the album where love dovetails with explicit theological content. The first two verses are about love’s transformative power – Cave lays out these absolutes and then immediately strikes a line through them. In anyone else’s hands, “I don’t believe in the existence of angels/ But looking at you I wonder if that’s true” would be the cheesiest of pick-up attempts, but he absolutely sells the line. We have all felt like Cave in this song, though not able to express it so unflinchingly. There is still a certain romantic showmanship at play, but not the hell-raising ‘Nick The Stripper’ of old. Comforting or heartbreaking, the song moulds to fit what you need from it. Soppy enough to have been the soundtrack to countless weddings over the years, it is also the song that Cave chose to sing at the funeral of his friend, INXS singer Michael Hutchence.
Recorded when Cave was nearing the peak of his heroin addiction, ‘Sad Waters’ takes the form of an almost-duet where he sings both identical parts. This has the strange effect of the song being very easy to interpret in different ways depending on your mood, although the romantic current comes through most strongly in the acoustic version housed on the recorded version of ‘The Secret Life of the Love Song’. In the 1986 original, the lovely rising basslines and breezy organ sound are matched by the lyrics, some of Cave’s most flowery and ornate. He casts himself as a prisoner of love, and this is not altogether bad or good – if sadness can never be banished entirely it must be embraced as part of living, and all of life’s moments and details savoured.
Perhaps slightly underrated by virtue of its parent album, ‘Love Letter’ is a clear highlight on 2001’s No More Shall We Part, where Cave infuses the act of sending a love letter with intense feeling and risk. Redemption is what’s at stake, but what is love if not a gamble? The lyrics are, I feel, an even more successful (and perhaps self-conscious) distillation of what he ended up achieving on The Boatman’s Call. Paring language down, finding poetry in simple statement. “Said something I did not mean to say/ It all came out the wrong way” – again, everyone has felt like this. It is part of being human, part of living. Tormenting ourselves with fantasies of “what-ifs?”, of alternate timelines. And all set to the most aching, hopeful string arrangement.
Far From Me
Cave closes his Vienna lecture with a discussion of this song. It took four months to write – the same duration as the relationship it describes. The first verse was written during the first week where, as always, pain is present alongside pleasure, but the two lovers are still together. We read them as separate from the “world where everybody fucks everybody else over”, but of course it is not quite that simple, and the song goes on to describe the relationship’s end. Where we might initially have read the title as a matter of geography, we now understand it to be distance of the heart. Cave suggests that the song had “its own agenda” – in other words it refused to let itself be finished until the traumatic moment, i.e. the breakup, had occurred.
Straight To You
The Bad Seeds’ greatest pop song, bar none. ‘Straight To You’ combined the accessibility of something like ‘Deanna’ with the kind of high stakes writing Cave excels at. And you can’t get a more intense backdrop than the end of the world. Here he paints the most incredible apocalyptic scene, full of crumbling towers, lost saints and thunderous skies. I’m sure we’ve all thought at one point or another what we would do if told we had but moments to live – Cave is compelled to spend his last moments on earth rushing to his lover. His big warm-hearted vocal hook and Harvey’s organ give the song a certain anthemic quality which further distinguishes it from the rest of the Bad Seeds catalogue. While they haven’t played this song live since 2009 – its original piss-take video might provide a clue as to the uneasy relationship they have with such a relatively straightforward pop song – it surely ranks as one of their finest moments.