‘Lawless’ Writer Nick Cave: The Lyrical Jesse James

Despite being a legendary figure to a bevy of fans, Nick Cave has not been showered with professional accolades here in America. None of the countless enduring songs in Cage’s catalogue (including his signature piece, “Red Right Hand”) have ever charted on the U.S. Billboard 100 Singles list, nor have any of his projects (The Birthday Party, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and Grinderman) ever been nominated for a Grammy (not that he would accept one anyway).

Despite this egregious lack of public prestige, Cave has for the last 40 years incalculably shaped much of the landscape of modern music by inspiring entire movements like Post-Punk and Neo-Baroque, all the while establishing himself as one of art’s truly distinctive voices. Due to his raw, unrefined sound and wounded baritone voice, Cave had become a cult icon long before his relatively recent surge in album sales, which has led to a reappraisal of his work by the critical community.

Despite profoundly impacting the course of music with his enduring legacy, common prejudices surrounding Cave’s central style have proven reductive to the artist. While often (accurately) credited as the originator of Goth Rock, the 54-year-old Australian’s portfolio illustrates a level of maturity and complexity that contrasts starkly with the mopey dirges composed in his name. Covering a litany of styles including blues and folk, Cave’s songs embody the spirit of varied subjects including romance, magical realism, fables, politics, and humor, with only his trademark sinister and forlorn sensibility tying them together.

While many members of Cave’s musically inclined ilk exemplify his love of variety, few have achieved the level of craftsmanship present in his unique brand of storytelling. Adopting the evocative imagery-centric model of songwriting perfected by his idol, Leonard Cohen, Cave frequently uses the language of his songs to weave a distinct and visual narrative. Giving a defined conception of space and movement through time, Cave doesn’t simply recount his tales, he animates them.

Equally invested in how his words are uttered as what they detail, Cave labors to draw out the hidden contours and colors of his words, as well as their natural rhythmic qualities. A master wordsmith, his songs flow seamlessly from stark prose to nihilistic poetry. With this lushness of language, Cave, usually acting as a third person omniscient narrator, brings life to his uniquely desolate world, populated by amoral and often violent characters that hide their damaged and fallible interiors behind veils of aggression. Separated by varying motivations, these individuals frequently share one common thread—a mutual disconnection with their fellow man, living alone in a personal hell (often of their own making), which is fueled by desire, remorse or obsession. While most of his contemporaries sing pleasing autobiographical songs of love and loss, Cave’s work favors the provocative and lyrical, as he attracts the listener in with his haunting melodies only to confront them with troubling scenes that tap into humanity’s inherent darkness.

With a flair for the illustrative, Cave has distinguished himself as one of the few truly literary musicians of this and the last century. Considering this, it should come as no surprise that the songwriter has become more actively involved in a relatively unfamiliar visual medium—cinema. Using films like The Proposition and Lawless (recently released in theaters) as new modes of personal expression, Cave continues to confront themes and character tropes that he has grappled with during his many years in music.

The strands that connect Cave’s music to his work in film can be charted back all the way to the artist’s first foray into the realm of cinema, when he served as the screenwriter for the rarely seen Australian movie, Ghosts…of the Civil Dead (1988). Set in a high-security penal institution, Ghosts delves deep into the harrowing conditions facing prisoners. The prison setting is a fertile one for Cave’s work, as many of his song characters either reside in or are being sent to the Big House. Cave’s most insightful look at the inner psyche of the condemned man lies in his immortal song, “The Mercy Seat” (which picked up widespread appreciation after it was covered by the late Johnny Cash). In this stirring account of personal turmoil, Cave’s conflicted prisoner is confronted with the reality of his impending execution by electrocution, while grappling with the discord between the corporal punishment levied by his persecutors and the forgiveness professed by Jesus Christ.

Dealing less with the horrors of inescapable doom and more with the inexorable fear accompanying membership in a penal community, Ghosts’ central theme becomes more pronounced half-way through the film. The prison officials begin depriving the inmates of their personal effects while loosening security restrictions, thereby inviting a maelstrom of violence and rebellion. This image of a bloody uprising against a system of injustice and abuse parallels Cave’s allegorical song, “Mutiny in Heaven,” albeit the song has a more fantastical form, wherein a drug-addicted angel incites a rebellion in Paradise.

Nearly 20 years after Cave’s filmmaking debut, the writer’s sophomore effort, The Proposition (2005), provides more connections with the artist’s musical fiction. Met with critical acclaim, the work joins Ghosts and many of Cave’s other works by conjuring the image of a hopeless land populated by sinners, many of whom are beset by remorse. The movie follows outlaw Charlie Burns, who receives a staggering proposition from fragile lawman Captain Stanley: kill his reclusive and vicious brother, Arthur, in exchange for his younger brother, Mike’s, freedom. Reflecting Cave’s fascination with the American West, The Proposition transposes the iconography and mythos of the Cowboy Era (and its central dichotomy between civilization and wildness) onto the backdrop of the Australian Outback, with aborigines acting as conflations of blacks and Indians. Many of the themes addressed by Cave, as expected, are present in his music, including the power of obsession, the implausibility of virtue, and the injustice of mob violence.

This latter theme, manifested in the police’s flagrant abuse of Mike in the town square as a source of grotesque entertainment, rears its head repeatedly in Cave’s music. In the song “Sonny’s Burning,” for instance, the narrator, a member of a mob guilty of lynching the titular combusted character, conveys a perverse sexual reaction to the collective bloodlust by referring to his victim as “some bright erotic star” that gives off “such an evil heat.” This verbiage is repeated in “A Box for Black Paul,” which centers on similar subject matter, and recalls the “Fable of the Brown Ape,” wherein a lynch mob, “rabid in their blindness,” slaughters a serpent.

While all of Cave’s films and most of his songs share a mutual interest in the homosocial relations between men, The Proposition seems most closely tied to Cave’s newest picture, Lawless, with the central interest on the interactions between (coincidentally outlaw) brothers. Set during Prohibition, Lawless chronicles the violence that erupts after a family of bootleggers is threatened by police officials. While conjuring images of wanton violence is something of a specialty for Cave (especially in his song “O’Malley’s Bar,” wherein he gives an explicit and protracted account of a lone gunman’s primal massacre of the people patronizing his local town saloon), the theme of fraternal obligation as a justification for violence is something new for him. While novel, it is a subject that Cave provides great insights into, especially during an exchange between the murderous rapist Arthur in The Proposition and his brother. After defining a misanthrope as a person who hates humanity, Arthur is asked, “Is that what we are, misanthropes?” Arthur responds, “Good Lord, no. We’re a family.”

Coming into vogue in recent years due to the success of The Proposition, the true Renaissance man has already experienced a tortuous ride through Hollywood, including seeing two of his scripts rejected by studios. The first, a tale about a lascivious salesman’s business trip with his son titled The Death of Bunny Munro, would later be turned into Cave’s second novel. The second, more notably, was Cave’s bizarre sequel to the historical epic Gladiator, wherein the dead hero Maximus is cosmically dislodged from time and forced to fight in a series of wars through the ages. But despite these failures (if one can even call them that), Cave’s outlook in cinema seems to be bright. On the heels of Lawless’s release, the writer has been working on screenplays relating to two of his personal heroes, one a film titled Death of a Ladies’ Man (which shares its name with an album by Leonard Cohen) and the second, an adaptation of The Threepenny Opera, a Bertold Brecht musical featuring music by Kurt Weill including the iconic “Mack the Knife.”

Known chiefly as a Goth musician, Nick Cave has proven over the years to be one of the most skilled and versatile artists in the modern era. While his disciples have criticized his filmic works for their lack of shocking moments and scathing examinations of religion that highlighted his earlier portfolio, credit must be given to Cave not only for his adeptness at making the unenviable transition from songwriting to screenwriting at a relatively late stage in his career, but also in the way he has maintained his oeuvre through the demanding and compromising field of cinema. Be it in celluloid or sound, Cave continues to dwell in the dirt he has called his home over the years. If one were to brand his grand mosaic of stories, I can’t think of a better name than “damnation with dignity.”

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