Performing Arts

The art of Nick Cave


The Secret Life of the Love Song
Chapter 12. Nick Cave: The Spirit of the Duende and the Sound of the Rent Heart
By Sarah Wishart

IQ excerpt

Although Cave’s lecture (at the Vienna Poetry Academy, 1999) was focused on the aspects of the love song important to him as the writer, some are equally important to the listener. Here, Cave could be seen to be summing up the effect on the audience as he declares that

the peculiar magic of the Love Song, if it has the heart to do it, is that it endures where the object of the song does not. It attaches itself to you and together you move through time. But it does more than that, for just as it is our task to move forward, to cast off our past, to change and to grow, in short to forgive ourselves and each other, the Love Song holds within it an eerie intelligence all of its own – to reinvent the past and to lay it at the feet of the present. (2007: 3)

Cave is describing the experience of the writer here, but it could equally be seen to be the experience of an affected audience. In Jason Webster’s account of his youthful escape to Spain and consequent attempts to both learn the flamenco guitar and subsume himself within Gypsy society, he describes the experience of hearing a flamenco singer:

I am held by the music as though any separation between myself and the rhythm has disappeared. A fat woman singing on stage, dancing in a way that seems as if she is barely moving, yet I feel she is stepping inside something and drawing me in with her. A chill, like a ripping sensation, moves up to my eyes. Tears begin to well up, while the cry from her lungs finds an echo within me, and makes me want to shout along with her. The hairs on my skin stand on end, blood drains to my feet. I am rooted to the spot, suspended between the emotion being drawn out of me, as though bypassing my mind, and the shame of what I am feeling. (Webster 2003: 7)

Although Webster’s description of the effect of the singer and the song on him is at times hackneyed, it continues to highlight the difficulty of describing what occurs in the process of the audience experiences of duende. He finishes his description of the event succinctly and more evocatively as his host for the evening, a local man, leans over to him and asks ‘did you feel it?’ (2003: 7). There is something here to be felt and experienced, but what is ‘it’? The love song’s potency to affect is categorically linked to its capacity to reflect or echo the listener’s experience of love; it must make something felt. It is only successful if the listener is affected and in order to be affected, they must be moved by the rendition of the pain or joy of the writer. The love songs that travel with me are the ones that say something about my particular situation, my particular joy and/or sorrow with a particular love-object. Despite being created for a specific love-object for the writer of the song, it is only when it moves away from the original subject that the song can be ultimately successful. Duende can only be truly experienced by the listener when the song is made anew. When the listener attaches their own experience to the song, when the song takes on a love-object for the listener,

in the same way it did for the writer, the song splits and becomes imbued with personal significance for the listener, that they can be truly moved by duende. I would suggest that after that happens, duende is present every time that song is heard and catapults the listener back into the ghostly arms of a lost lover or a lost time. Cave sums this capacity up when he explains that ‘the Love Song holds within it an eerie intelligence all of its own – to reinvent the past to lay it at the feet of the present’ (2001: 3).

Whilst Cave feels that most of his own works have been love songs, the list he produces in his essay dates from his later work with the Bad Seeds and from 1986 through to 2001 (2001: 13). Although the majority of the songs Cave cites in that list come from The Boatman’s Call, it is his album The Good Son, written while Cave was living in Sao Paulo, Brazil and had fallen in love with a Brazilian woman, Viviane Carniero, that has a distinctly Spanish sound. In fact, Richard Elliott suggests that a song from the album is evidence that Nick Cave has always been a singer of Lorca’s ‘Deep Song’, that ‘Sorrow’s Child’ links Cave directly to the saudade:

[t]his is what had happened in 1994 when the controversial novo fadista Paulo Bragança recorded a version of Cave’s song ‘Sorrow’s Child’ with the guitarrista Mário Pacheco. In an interview, Bragança maintained the validity of his choice: ‘throughout his life Nick Cave has been a fadista in the broadest sense of the word and the lyric of “Sorrow’s Child” by itself is already a fado’. (Elliott 2010)

Whilst The Good Son clearly shows the influence of living in South America in the keening sounds and mournful paeans to sorrow it contains, this influence appears intermittently throughout Cave’s work. I am not suggesting that it is only the songs that sound most like flamenco in Cave’s back catalogue that bring about duende. However, I do think it significant that there might be a link to an interest in the same sort of sound that inspired Lorca to write on duende in the first place. The song ‘Spell’ from the 2004 double album Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus does not echo aspects of Spanish music, but it does contain strata of melancholy set off with Cave’s restrained mournful tone. It is a pared and simple composition that, once again, evokes an ethereal quality of longing.

The experience of being returned to a past emotional state through the act of listening to the songs is exactly the effect that Lorca suggests the duende demands. The artist struggles with his duende, and, when he is successful in his struggle, duende comes forth. It comes through, emerging from the agony and delight experienced by the writer. When it does, the audience experiences these same emotions in the process. Nick Cave’s work, dealing, as it does so often, with a dialectic of the positive and negative sides of love, enables its audience to experience duende. Cave’s work sings the deep song and, in doing so, allows us to feel its keening note, its bleeding presence, and the shivering kiss of the rent heart.

This except has been taken from The Art of Nick Cave: New Critical Essays, edited by John H. Baker.
To learn more about this book, click here




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