Book Review | Nick Cave’s Art Is Stranger Than Kindness

Nick Cave is a hard artist to pin down. He appears as much at home at the typewriter as the piano, as well as prowling about onstage throwing rock star postures. Cave is, at once, the renaissance man and the outcast rebel. He has cast his net wide across a sea of influence to become one of the world’s most iconic musicians.

Both a prolific writer (with two novels, lectures, sick-bag poetry, and a 40-year back catalogue of lyrics) and a voracious reader, Cave has recently engaged directly with his fans. He offers a rare rock star glasnost with his open-hearted blog, The Red Hand Files, and its generous Q&A discussions. Nick Cave’s fans have long deserved a book that offers a long-view perspective on him and his work, and Stranger Than Kindness more than fulfils on its promise.

The book collates a—carefully considered and curated—scattershot of artistic imagery, original lyric drafts, scrapbooks, and a few literary influences. We get a glimpse into the mental humus that sits behind Cave’s brooding presence, giving birth to his persona and appearing through his songs. The book’s cover image, laid out as one of the archive images presented inside, shows us a meta-scene of Cave as he is now. He sits alongside his younger self, looking over his (own) shoulder and reconnecting with his inspirations. Mopping up the spilled ink that has slipped from the bleeding edge of a journal entry gone out of control.

A paternal hand placed on one side, the older, perhaps wiser figure, now a kind of rock and roll survivor, watching his personal history stretched out behind him. Stranger Than Kindness walks this jagged but unbroken line, staggering through Cave’s vision as we delve, together, into his personal archive, showing something of his creative arithmetic to shed some light on the man behind the closely-guarded legend.

The book is that rare kind of project that wouldn’t work for many musicians except someone as mercurial as Cave. For comparison, see the David Bowie Is… book, no doubt an influence. It is not simply because Cave has long been recognised as a classic 20th century artist who deftly blends high and low culture, at once intellectually domineering and also loaded with outre streetwise gutter smarts, that such a project is justified, perhaps necessary, even. The book goes to great lengths to explore the greater depths of Cave’s engagement with religion, an aspect that informs his personal and creative thinking and so often lacking from many other musicians, excepting perhaps Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash.

Where it has become increasingly cool for any public intellectual or edgy artist to appear knowingly atheistic, or at the least complacently agnostic, often without the necessary grounding in philosophy or religious studies to make a solid argument beyond ignorance and feigning towards loose spirituality of post-hippy anti-capitalism, Cave has always stuck to his guns in wrestling with matters of faith. His deep reading and continual engagement with the bible and matters pertaining to the crisis of Jesus on the cross and God as mythical figurehead run through Stranger Than Kindness like blood in a river.

The book is full of iconography, ghosts of sacrifice, martyred saints, and Jesus on the cross, a pose and inspiration that Cave has revisited again and again throughout his career. This has allowed Cave to make the leap from murder ballads and love songs, from the innate evil of man against man, to the universality of feeling. Cave’s example suggests you can hold a vision of love, lust and necessary sin without becoming a moral bigot. To see death, life, and loss as intertwined complications of the human condition.

The insightful and searching essay from Dancer Steinke that opens the book gives a deep and bracing account of Cave’s spiritual struggle, placing it in the context of an attitude to life and day to day questions of faith that his music often implies without forcing it. There is as much doubt and fear as fire and fury. She offers a unique critical view of Cave’s perception of Jesus as an almost Nietzschean superman, a better way of living through continual striving, without the need to be proven morally right or wrong.

She illuminates this often neglected side of his history and connects this to the difficult, and no doubt painful, openness with which Cave has engaged fans and listeners about the loss of his son, Arthur, in 2015, uniting people in their experiences of grief. Cave’s most recent album, Ghosteen, is a reckoning with grief and loss that helps to define our shared humanity. Perhaps this spirit, always present in Cave’s music, is what has made him such an enduring artist.

Elsewhere, Stranger Than Kindness provides vivid details of early days and struggles towards artistic self-identity. Cave’s teacher father, a great influence, read his son the opening passage of Lolita, inviting a nascent and eager sexual awakening and sparking a lifelong love of words and their infinite possibilities of expression to shape minds. The book marks a suitably strange crossover between the private and personal, which later finds its way into his works.

Cave recounts how he was struck by the appearance and aura of Susie Bick upon first meeting her. Bick soon became his wife and muse, as presented in the lyrics of ‘Wide Lovely Eyes’ and ‘I Need You’. Elsewhere we see locks of hair from past girlfriends glued into self-made notebooks. produced while artist in residence of his famously scattered Berlin garret during his self-imposed exile of the early 1980s. In these pages we see Cave pouring earlier visions of death, despair and general outsider freakery that would inform tracks like ‘The Carny’ and ‘The Mercy Seat’.

The black and white photos show Cave a somewhat solitary, indefinable post-punk, pseudo-goth with a shock of black hair, the bright side of Elvis gone bad (to seed?!). No less self-assured than now, but living through a vampiric haze of continual wandering. It is only much later we see the settled but still creatively restless Cave refusing to rest on his past-nihilistic laurels, but expanding his vision to more widescreen visions of greater loveliness and loquacious verve.

No book could offer us direct access into why Cave writes the songs and words that he does, but we at least gain some greater understanding of the “what” and “how” behind the artist. Through appreciating Cave’s own sense of becoming, Stranger Than Kindness offers brief nods towards the greats of his personal history. Those encouraging him to step up and take his place alongside them, casting his own shadow in various fields.

Beyond the few straight biographies about Cave that give little insight into his work, Stranger Than Kindness gives us a glimpse, if not into Cave’s creative process, then it reveals the lurid and vivid matter that directly feeds and informs his imagination. Cave’s notation that accompanies much of the gathered artefacts enriches the imagery on display. A museum of ideas offering a loose chronology of a continually fascinating artist who exists outside the need for relevance. Cave offers us that rare thing—music past and present that remains interesting, challenging and captivating. Stranger Than Kindness both embodies and enriches our understanding of how Nick Cave the artist came to be, and illuminates why his music continues to matter to so many.

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