Listen to Nick Cave’s Lecture on the Art of Writing Sublime Love Songs (1999)

Let’s take a love song—let’s take Huey Lewis and the News’ “Power of Love,” why not? Catchy, right? And that video? Back to the Future! That takes you back, doesn’t it? Yeah…. Now let’s ask some hard questions. Is this song an accurate representation of the human emotion we call “love”? All upbeat synths and blaring horns? Really? But then, there’s Lewis, who, right out of the gate, acknowledges that love, “a curious thing,” can “make one man weep” and “another man sing.” I imagine that love can make a woman feel the same. A curious thing. Huey Lewis’ 80s anthem may not sound like love, necessarily, but he’s a smart enough songwriter to know that love often uses its power for ill—“it’s strong and sudden and it’s cruel sometimes.”

Let’s take another songwriter, one with a darker vision, a more literary bent, Nick Cave. The Australian post-punk crooner and former leader of chaotic punk band The Birthday Party wrote a song called “People Ain’t No Good,” the most universal of laments, after a breakup. See him, in the live version in Poland at the top, declare in a mournful, soulful baritone accompanied only by a piano, the truth of no-goodness. Unlike Huey Lewis, this song allows for no quality, power of love or otherwise, to “change a hawk into a little white dove.” It’s Nietzschean in its tragic disappointment. And yet, such is the power of Nick Cave, to write a song of no goodness that sounds like a hymn of praise. The duality Cave embraces gets a part autobiographical, part gospel treatment in the lecture above (“The Secret Life of the Love Song”), which Cave delivered at the Vienna Poetry Festival in 1999.

Cave, the son of a literature professor and himself an accomplished novelist and poet, knows his craft well. The ballads that dominate pop music have deeper roots in a harsher world, one that produced the “murder ballad,” not coincidentally the title of a Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds record — one Allmusic writes Cave “was waiting to make his entire career.” Cave recognizes, as he says in his talk above “an uncaring world—a world that fucks everybody over.” And yet… and yet, he says again and again, there is love, or rather, love songs. Quoting W.H. Auden and Federico Garcia Lorca, he goes on to describe the form as “a howl in the void, for Love and for comfort.” The love song “lives on the lips of the child crying for its mother. It is the song of the lover in need of her loved one, the raving of the lunatic supplicant petitioning his God.”

The love song, then, must contain a quality Garcia Lorca called Duende, an “eerie and inexplicable sadness.” Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Van Morrison, Tom Waits, and Neil Young have it. “It haunts,” he says, his ex P.J. Harvey. “All love songs must contain duende. For the love song is never truly happy. It must first embrace the potential for pain.” Cave draws on Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day,” the “brutal prose” of the Old Testament, and the most innocuous-sounding pop songs, which can disguise “messages to God that cry out into the yawning void, in anguish and self-loathing, for deliverance.”

He also references, and reads, his own song, “Far From Me,” from 1997’s The Boatman’s Call, the post-breakup record that contains “People Ain’t No Good.” (Cave begins the lecture with a rendition of “West Country Girl” from that same record.) It’s an album that brought Cave’s “morbidity to near-parodic levels,” stripping the Bad Seeds stumbling lounge punk down to mostly piano and voice. This reference is not a matter of vanity but of the most well chosen illustration. Cave admits he is “happy to be sad,” to live in “divine discontent.” His religious existentialism is ultimately relieved by the power of love songs, by his “crooked brood of sad eyed children” which “rally round and in their way, protect me, comfort me and keep me alive.” Maybe Huey Lewis had something similar to say, but there’s no way he could ever say it the way that Nick Cave does. Read a partial transcript of Cave’s talk here.

via Dangerous Minds

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness


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