The Dream Songs and The Skeleton Tree

Considering Nick Cave's 2016 Record Through the Poetry of John Berryman

I am obliged to perform in complete darkness
operations of great delicacy
on my self.
—John Berryman, Dream Song #67

The poet John Berryman once said, “I do strongly feel that among the greatest pieces of luck for high achievement is ordeal… My idea is this: the artist is extremely lucky who is presented with the worst possible ordeal which will not actually kill him. At that point, he’s in business.”

The musician Nick Cave has often referred to John Berryman as the most important influence on his writing; Berryman the poet who created, in his friend Robert Lowell’s words, a “Pierrot’s universe… more tearful and funny than we can easily bear” out of his own “extreme luck”—alcoholism, the scarring childhood trauma of his father’s suicide, a loss of and search for faith—latterly through the person of Henry, “not the poet, not me.” Henry, the central figure, of Berryman’s Dream Songs, is articulate with pain, his syntax tortured and broken, his despair and wit tragic and abiding. The poems in which he speaks seem as necessary to their poet’s survival as any of their century, a way for Berryman of coping until they weren’t, anymore. “Poetry is a terminal activity, taking place out near the end of things,” Berryman said elsewhere, “And it aims—never mind either communication or expression—at the reformation of the poet, as prayer does.”

Cave parts ways with Berryman when it comes to the idea of suffering as a stirring, creative force. In the 2016 documentary One More Time With Feeling Cave said, “Trauma is extremely damaging to the creative process,” it leaves “no imaginative room.” The notion of self-reformation, of song as a form of prayer, is familiar to Cave, and has been throughout a career which began in earnest amid the chaos and malevolence of The Birthday Party in the late 1970s. Out of that lawless hyperactivity Cave has become a literate, prolific and restless songwriter, an anthology of styles and contradiction with a back catalogue taking in narratives of revenge, yearning and caustic disillusion, all fleshed out, stabilized, sonically driven on and interrupted by the brilliance of his band. Cave has stolen elements and imagery from a number of traditions—the Blues’s deadpan woe, country’s three-chords-and-the-truth storytelling—reinterpreted and taken liberties with them, to create a blood-hued universe of good and evil. Cave’s cosmology requires a God and a Devil, and is often narrated by a Cave-like figure—somewhat Henry-ish in his mischief, bawdiness and confession—who roams, howls, and desires. Rather than settling over the years into a stylistic rut, churning out new iterations of an agreed-upon formula, Cave has remained twitchy and malcontent.

Cave suffered the worst possible ordeal in 2015, when his teenage son died. With this tragedy came an amplified, Berrymanish necessity to Cave’s songwriting, the use of making to serve a need, to hold the world in place, at least for as long as the lines spool out. And, like Berryman, the remade Cave on his 2016 record Skeleton Tree squats, nerved and veiled; time is fractured and elastic, logic distressed. There is a sparseness and improvisatory quality to the record which makes it distinct from his other work with the Bad Seeds. More air blows through the songs on Skeleton Tree, the lyrics feel in a permanent state of negotiation, tensed with a fear of betraying too much of their author or their subject while wanting, needing, to speak of terrible things.

Cave has often rebuilt himself, as well as his song’s sound and style, shifting from ragged, heroin-addicted alley-cat to well-tailored gothic balladeer, via rockabilly, and cinematic strings. He has said that you should be able to sketch a rock star, and he is eminently sketchable, caricaturable—he has the icon’s talent for silhouette, for outline, as Berryman, bearded, had by the time he got to Henry. The crow-black swept-back hair, the crane fly limbs—Cave’s look has been settled on for decades, with only minimal rearrangements: a brief Zapata moustache phase soon corrected, having been perhaps too comically playacting the role of midlife crisis. It isn’t mere vanity behind this focused image, but something more alchemical, on display whenever he appears live. His image is so fixed in his devotees’ heads by now, its shorthand so accessible, that despite how fully in act he is on stage, how animate and aggressively embodied, he becomes a medium, a ventriloquist, for those created narrators, those thrown voices. His strutting, his evangelical shuffles, stir and en-frenzy, but as much as he’s a street preacher in a two-piece suit he’s also a ghost up there, a hologram version of the voice heard on headphones in the dark. The latest shift, however, this reformed, praying voice on Skeleton Tree, hasn’t been down to simple stylistic fidgeting, the pull of a new sound, but to the song as life-raft, the artist writing his way out of the more than ordinary dark.

In the winter of 2017, this renegotiated Cave went, like the narrator of his 2013 single “Higgs Boson Blues”, to Geneva, a stop on an eight-week European tour, and I went to that clean, seemingly half-deserted city of endless barbers—every third shop a Salon de Coiffeur—to see him under the imposing glare of the Alps, at the Arena de Genève.

The set leaned heavily, as expected, on Cave’s then-new songs from Skeleton Tree, songs which are not diary entries, their sorrow is not named so baldly; but which are the product of masks, of freeing personae. This new mode of survival in a shocked and altered present—this Skeleton Tree singer—is only one of the available, presentable Caves hanging angularly in his wardrobe. For an artist like Cave, in a show like this spanning all his years of production, it’s possible to travel back to visit, at least for the four-minute duration of the song, old selves; to try on old costumes—the old Blixa Bargeld-inspired Krautrock years, the waltzing with Polly Harvey minutes. But he can only travel back: the forward move always has to be written into, and not on stage, not in public.

There is also something paradoxical about the touring artist’s life he has chosen, and continued with this set of shows. Something disquieting about performing these Skeleton Tree songs especially, night after night, in what is at least to some extent a manufactured kind of spontaneity, a willed, commercially viable parade for months on end, in enormous rooms, built on all this dark liquid of feeling. Berryman’s Henry again comes to mind with the idea of Cave and his band hitting the road, rolling up like carnival folk to put on a show, of these songs as mere entertainment, or rehearsed diversion—”Henry’s pelt was put on sundry walls/where it did much resemble Henry and/them persons was delighted.” There is something draining, sacrificial almost to this equation, the fans, many of them of Cave’s vintage, near life-long admirers, entering into some new, re-written contract, one which now includes understanding, pathos and kindness where once his was a more caustic, confrontational address. Cave spoke in One More Time With Feeling of a new sensation, first felt on the streets and the shops where he lives after his son’s accident, of having become “an object of pity.” It was clear throughout the show that he was still chiefly one of devotion, though, from his first prowl towards the front row, hands reaching out to him like pilgrims yearningly inclined towards the True Cross, those nearest to the stage placing a hand onto the clean-shaven chest under Cave’s crisp, half-way buttoned shirt. A gold hand on a chain swinging above his heart’s booms, keeping their rhythm.

Berryman’s Dream Songs have an entire section written as if posthumously, Henry remembering his own death, making noises from underground—as it were—and there is something at times otherworldly about these new lyrics. On songs such as “Jesus Alone”, Cave’s voice is a forlorn summons “With my voice/I am calling you” but we can’t take this “I” at face value, there is something in the atmosphere of the song, as much as its title, that suggests it knows what it is to look back at life as to call into the void from it. What could be lonelier than the sacrificed narrator, in either case, talking from the other side of some manner of resurrection? Elsewhere, too, the lines between the living and the dead are blurred and confused, the first lines of the song “You fell from the sky/crash landed in a field” at once portent and in memoriam, written as it was before the tragic death but having within it, too, an echo of Berryman’s plunge from Washington Avenue Bridge in 1972 onto the frozen waters of the Mississippi River. This is further complicated by lines later in the song, lines of fecundity and convalescence, of dripping trees and being “a distant memory in the mind of your creator.”

The voice of the songs is, like Henry, “not the poet, not me” but often it has had the same experiences, knows the same people, has endured the same crises. He can toy with autobiography, if toy isn’t too glib a word in these circumstances—through allusion, hint and gesture, enough glances just off-stage at the heartbreak, not distant, never far away. Particularly affecting, in this line, was a video shown on stage during “Girl In Amber” featuring Cave’s wife Susie, an accomplished fashion designer who runs her own label called—aptly—The Vampire’s Wife, walking along the front at Brighton, the camera focused on the back of her head as she disappeared, while her husband sang “If you want to leave, don’t breathe”. She was also felt in the plaintive words of “I Need You”, a new type of Cave love song, every bit as desperate and wounded as “The Ship Song” or “Into My Arms”. It has no time, perhaps, for worrying about line endings, instead it acts as a kind of imagistic incantation, repeating its few visual charms—a red dress, a long black car, hair hanging down—and strings them onto a childlike plea of “I need you”, the least artful but most honest summary of any love song. There is the feel of a cracked take on babytalk elsewhere too, especially on the heavily alliterative “Magneto”, its chorus built on a stairway of “l”s, a lulling late-night mumble, tender and conspiratorial. If there is a Dream Songs link, there is also common ground with the even later Berryman of Love & Fame and Delusions etc, where even Henry’s baroque sort of heartbreak wasn’t enough anymore, or was too much, and a previously unseen plainness crept in, a language of exhaustion and resignation, or perhaps just a feeling that ornamentation was too easy, too much of a concession to the listening pelt-collector.

These are songs from the other side of great ordeal, and—as with “Jesus Alone” they are sometimes unworldly, particularly “Distant Sky” which, too, has a posthumous or dislocated sense of grounding. It’s a moon hymn, an elegy and sci-fi road movie all at once. Cave’s voice sounds more cracked, more surprised, here than anywhere else, the Auden-ish lines “call the gasman, cut the power out” leading into a plea for escape, old-fashioned courtly balladish and heartbreaking, “Let us go now, my darling companion.” The poet and critic Michael Hofmann described Berryman’s Dream Songs as operating at the extremes of “courtliness and creatureliness” and that feels right here, too, the old-fashioned diction, the idea of stepping out, mixed with the question of who is setting out and to where, what these “distant skies” might be, and why, ultimately, “This is not for our eyes.” The appearance on screen, during the live version, of the soprano Else Torp, who guests on the track, is another sort of haunting, a projection of her dressed for the Met, her pristine cutglass voice a high register counterpoint to Cave’s hurt lowing.

As well as changing Cave the writer and singer, these new songs and the fact of going on the road again with them has altered everything that went before. The songs Cave played from his back catalogue at times allowed him to escape from the present, put on another, older mask, temporarily—the raucous brimstone numbers a way of shaking off exposed nerves, allowing his gestures to the crowd to seem freer, at times a railing preacher pointing in accusation, at others a marionette in command of his own strings, but there is an autopilot sort of freedom to them, muscle memory more than liberation. The love songs, too, retain their romantic power, their insistent vulnerability, but are altered by experience, by this new Cave’s shadow falling across them, he for whom lost love, unrequited and difficult, was no longer the worst thing that could happen or be endured, repackaged, sung back from. Their new context also revealed a previously unseen layering to their composition; they aren’t only beautiful structures for expressing the erotic wound, the piner’s lament, but robust enough to provide a home for all manner of yearning, a firmament into which one might hurl any form of keening, impossible hope. Berryman wrote, as he neared Henry’s exhaustion, “I will not come again/or not come with this style”, and if Cave’s career has proved anything it’s that he, too, will return in different emotional shape. His songs have always been in the terminal genre, purring and scowling at the back of the class, sometimes gloomy, sometimes violent, but always serving as ways of remaking himself. On the way home we ran into Cave at Geneva airport, in the wipe-clean dining hall, and it was like seeing a leopard in the kitchen: the wrong context entirely, as if he had no business away from the stage, no ordinary appetite to deal with or check-in schedule to adhere to. He was good enough to sign my traveling companion’s t-shirt, “Nick Cave” in neat cursive, a little permanence to stand as a reminder of how much that definition has changed over the years. It will continue to change, as long as he keeps writing songs that are also prayers, operating on himself, out near the end of things.

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