A Battered Monument
Whenever Nick Cave launches a new project in London, the same group of respectable goths and men in silk shirts find themselves together again, and recognition flickers – because you met this person last time, or you catch a glimpse of Ray Winstone again, or Will Self. It was like that at Her Majesty’s Theatre in 2013, when the Bad Seeds played Push the Sky Away in full for the first time; and at the Barbican in 2014, for a gala preview of Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard’s film about Cave’s 20,000 Days on Earth. Last night, P.J. Harvey was ahead of me in the queue at the cinema, where I’d gone to watch One More Time with Feeling, Andrew Dominik’s film about Cave’s sixteenth album with the Bad Seeds, Skeleton Tree.
Halfway through the making of the record, Arthur, one of Cave’s 15-year-old twin sons, fell from a cliff and died a couple of miles from the family home in Brighton. Initially conceived as a ‘performance-based concept’, Dominik’s film evolved into something quite different. He had worked with Cave before, on The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford in 2007, to which Cave contributed a soundtrack and a cameo, and it seems the project was allowed to continue because the director was trusted, and because of Cave’s ‘instinct … of self-preservation’, as Dominik put it at the Venice film festival last week: Cave wouldn’t have to promote the album; the film could do that for him.
Catastrophe has made conversation difficult. Early on in the film, Cave describes being in a bakery in Brighton, and finding himself looking up into the kind eyes of a stranger, before realising that everybody else around him has stopped talking. ‘We’re all with you man,’ the stranger says. Cave appreciates the sentiment, people aren’t no good after all, but ‘When,’ he asks himself, ‘did I become a figure of pity?’ Such stories, of existential reflection rooted in domestic English detail, have become central to Cave’s writing since he settled here at the turn of the millennium, after spells in Berlin and Brazil. It’s a matter of pride, for British fans, that our exotic idol should have become the gentleman next door, leaving his Georgian townhouse every morning in a suit to work a nine-to-five day in his ‘office’; writing songs – better than ever – that mention Gardeners’ Question Time and local street names; waving a giant foam hand at Brighton panto; petitioning the local council to dress the skeleton of the West Pier with wisteria.
One More Time with Feeling quickly announces that it will be a hyper-stylised, self-reflexive project, acknowledging the absurdity of ‘real-life’ retakes with a ‘ridiculous 3D camera’ in the room, and immediately establishing distance between what’s happening on screen and Cave’s voiceover. The awful context of the record is initially referred to obliquely, as part of a wider reflection on a creative process under pressure. But the film soon becomes an unprecedentedly personal contemplation of Cave’s dependence on his families. ‘Look at him, holding everything together,’ his voiceover murmurs, as we watch Warren Ellis, Cave’s main musical collaborator for the past two decades, as others have come and gone. Then we see his wife, the former model Susie Bick, for so long silent in Cave's work, talking about her work as a designer, answering questions while Cave looks on.
This is a portrait at odds with the traditional image of Cave as self-obsessed control freak, parodied in 20,000 Days. But there is humour from familiar sources here, too. ‘Fuck! What happened to my face?’ Cave asks himself at one point. ‘The director says I look like a battered monument.’ Later, he complains about Bick’s habit of shifting the furniture in their house around so it ‘changes the function of the room while you’re asleep’.
This is a quirk he’s written about before, in a song called ‘The Sorrowful Wife’, on No More Shall We Part (2001). That’s the album, Cave’s first record after he quit heroin, that Skeleton Tree, on a first listening, most reminds me of. Then, he had to convince himself, slowly and painfully, that his imagination wasn’t dependent on the drug, and the result was songs that feel a little slack, but which I return to more often than the more finished tracks. He acknowledges something like this in the film; that his initial sketches suddenly felt terrifyingly prophetic, and could only be filled in as raw documents of emotion, not ‘fixed up’ as they usually are.
But there are sudden moments of clarity too: a repeated lyric plucked out of the imagery of supermarkets and sickness and futility; a melody sung by all the Bad Seeds together, in unison (or solidarity); and, most striking of all, the voice of the Danish soprano Else Torp on the penultimate track, ‘Distant Sky’, which makes the film flash from black and white to colour. Towards the end of the film there’s a line Cave repeats, several times, in a villanelle-like poem: ‘There is more paradise in hell than we’ve been told.’