Dig Yourself Back In That Hole?- Nick Cave’s Ode

In the—In the—In the last century, on September 25, 1999, Nick Cave gave a speech about the Love Song.  But that’s so long ago…Yes it is, and it’s still important, amigos.

From the speech: “Midst the madness and mayhem…my artistic life has centered around an attempt to articulate the nature of an almost palpable sense of loss that has laid claim to my life.”

He continues, “I found that through the use of language, that I wrote God into existence…the actualizing of God through the medium of the Love Song remains my prime motivation as an artist.”

Okay.  So roughly nine years later he puts out the album Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! (2008), and although Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds can be cagey, we see something related to his stated goal manifest itself in this record: the “duende.”  To define “duende” tightly is tough.  Cave uses the term in his lecture on the Love Song, but he gets it from author Frederico García Lorca, in an essay titled “The Theory and Function of Duende” (1933).  According to Manuel Torre, whom García Lorca quoted in the essay, “All that has dark sounds has duende.”  Or, to define it by Cave in his essay, it’s the “eerie and inexplicable sadness that lives in the heart of certain works of art.”

An access point to a genuine expression of duende is through a love of humanity and compassion for suffering.  And if this love of and compassion toward humanity exists as an audible fruit (and it can surely take whatever damn shape our imaginations give it) then in listening to Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!, we may have found something like love in audible fruit form.  It’s a spongy soul-fruit of pining and growling made out of twenty-first-century restlessness, internalized emotional disorientation, and the general mental chaos and static that results from the jarring rate at which technology swells; and then there’s the jilting effect of technology’s intimacy with our wants and yet its requirement of engagement with impersonal and monolithic-amorphous institutional bodies with all their limbs.


In the film Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927), we are told that the intermediary between the heart and the head must be the hands, and what we are feeling (and what we might be uncomfortable with) when we listen to Lazarus is electricity, sweat, and the fingerprints from the at-least sixteen hands that went into making this album/ode that churns minerals and fervor with plant-like chemical-electrical structures.  Generally in pop music these days, the sweat is swabbed up by the time it reaches the ears.  Brian Eno said in his essay “The Revenge of the Intuitive” (1999), that he was “struck by the insidious, computer-driven tendency to take things out of the domain of muscular activity and put them into the domain of mental activity.”  So, instead of the sound and feel of an arm articulating a guitar with all that “organic” effort, we get things like computer-processed voices (Auto-Tune and the like), dubbing, planar keyboard props, and effects of any sort your sweet little fantasy requires.

Now, of course, Cave and the Seeds use electronics, but there is something discomforting yet hallowed about the amount of organic work that comes through things like electric violins and (yeah) keyboards.  Maybe it’s a matter of leaving most of the gleam and polish off the effort, of skirting the slick packaging that slides the product past our intuitive muscular resonance and then past the mysteries inside you.  Though to be fair not all electronic music slides past (Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Volume II (1994) comes to mind, as does Keith Berry’s “Toward the Blue Peninsula” (2008) and all sorts of experimental music), and not all muscle-based music accesses mysteries (take, “Tequila Sunrise” by the Eagles (1973)…but it’s all about personal relationships and intimacies anyway); and some of it is not meant to.

Maybe I am taking the album a little too naively or seriously, but the album is in essence one love song, though the classic- or romantic-type love is sparse and even maybe warped when it shows up (see “Jesus of the Moon”).  The album is a type of love song/ode that is a communion with God/soul/spirit that functions within necessarily finite, existential conditions (i.e. language and the restrictions of expressing something like duende through material and waves); and inspired by existential conditions, Cave intuitively follows his idea of writing God into existence.

To get to a few of the songs:

The album opens with the chorus of the title song and goes “Dig yourself, Lazarus Dig Yourself” which repeats three times and concludes with “Back in that hole.”  This is an essential tension of digging life and digging yourself because you have as much right as anyone else to exist and function, and then digging yourself back into nothingness, digging through superficial or illusionary surfaces.  It’s about getting some control over your will and then of authentically deciding how to use it.

As far as I know, no one has ever asked to be born.  This is a central definition of the human condition.  There is pain, suffering, bliss, desire, and monstrous ambiguity – and we didn’t ask for it.  This is expressed in the song in reference to the character, Lazarus: “he never asked to be raised up from the tomb / I mean, no one ever asked him to forsake his dreams.”  The storyline of the song as a whole is tragic: a man ruined by outward success and by his not fitting into big cities and society and their manifestations of “success” – there is no home for him.  Further, the song also says, “I don’t know what it is / But there’s definitely something going on upstairs,” which suggests the presence of a home, but since Lazarus can find none, may allude to God/soul/spirit, which is his only home, and yet is one that he is blind to, and understandably if he’s conditioned against such an awareness.  But if one isn’t paying attention to the lyrics, the music itself is funky and upbeat, almost celebratory – which has the effect of equivocating sorrow and joy.  It’s like we are in the active life cycle of a tergiversation, and most of us can relate to that.

In “Night of the Lotus Eaters,” I have discovered a song that almost always catches my neurotic thinking before it takes another lap.  There’s something about the constant clicking loop throughout the song that sets the rhythm, the sense of alienation and apocalypse in the lyrics, the sound working as a harrow over the psychical ground of neurosis, and this ground is eerily suspended over that dark core of duende.  I can see this song being the soundtrack to Hieronymus Bosch’s painting The Last Judgment (1482) set in motion.

“Hold on to Yourself,” however much irony (or “masculine self-delusion,” as the Nick Cave bio from Amazon.com says) might be at play here lyrically, both the lyrical content and its eerie sonic complements (though the keyboard riff that comes in is playful) of a screeching and whirling violin and guitar riffs (similar to those by Marc Ribot and Harry Cody from Tom Wait’s Real Gone (2004)) do lend expression to a sort of hopelessly isolated sensation that people feel at times – not everyone, but some of us.  Here is where the duende creeps in despite any attempt at irony, because the truth of existence is that we all have to experience something significant alone at some point (with the world in flux and/or crumbling or people being unreliable), be it some weighty life decision or just death – which implies that we need to be able to hold on to ourselves and trust ourselves and develop the faculties (values and beliefs) that will allow us to do that.

But whether it’s the world that crumbles or its pain in or around you, or whether it’s you yourself that you’re categorically unable to hold onto because you’re changing all the goddamn time emotionally and cognitively, you might discover that ego-based Romantic self-reliance is (at least) partial bullshit as a total personal value system.  There are types of fulfillment that just can’t come from an ego and its decision-making and its senses.  So this song could be a warning against idealizing self-reliance or the richness of the ego, and it seems to allow that there are many reasons why people suffer, cause suffering, and need fulfillment outside of their control – and so sympathetic (sacred? – but that’s a scary word) communion with other human beings can be deep nourishment at times.

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds are a demanding group, especially as evidenced in their work of the last decade or so, difficult to look directly in the face and get a read on, and we’re not really used to that type of complexity in pop music these days.  They tend to be elusory in terms of just giving you a goddamn regular song and it can get exhausting.  Even as casual as the motivations are behind Cave’s other project Grinderman, even that does not allow a casual listen.  Unless you’ve been listening to Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music (1975) for—well, even for just one time through.  And if you have you’re more likely to say fuck this life and wait until nine pm, tune into Delilah’s radio show, and connect with humans through genuine sappiness rather than go for some Grinderman.

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