"Praise Him till you've forgotten what you're praising Him for/Then praise Him a little more." — from "Get Ready for Love"
What are Christians to make of Nick Cave? Rarely do artists create such a perplexing juxtaposition of the secular and profane with the sacred and sincere.
The spiritual dichotomy traces as far back as his childhood. Cave revealed in a recent interview that he was something of a wild child who abused alcohol at an early age, but he also attended Sunday school and served as a choirboy. Years later, he helped pioneer the goth and punk rock scene in the late '70s with his band The Birthday Party. When they disbanded in 1983, he continued on with The Bad Seeds (and as a solo artist), creating a dark and sometimes morbid blend of alternative rock, blues, folk, and gospel. Vulgarity and violent imagery are no strangers to Cave's songwriting.
Yet one surprising constant in Cave's genre-bending work is his use of biblical imagery and an acknowledgment of God's presence. It used to be more of an Old Testament relationship for Cave, who once wrote, "I don't believe in an interventionist God," in his song "Into My Arms" (1997's The Boatman's Call). In recent years, however, the veteran artist seems more drawn to the merciful God of the New Testament, stating that "the story of Christ is amazing" and even writing an introduction to The Gospel of Mark for a special edition Bible released in the U.K.
The disparity continues on 2004's double album, Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus, hailed by many mainstream critics as one of the year's best. Cave's poetic lyricism is vivid and haunting like Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen, and his music combines the tripping underground '70s rock of Iggy Pop and David Bowie with modern and experimental sensibilities—some of it is extremely melodic, some of it the creepiest stuff you'll hear all year. The shining distinction to Cave's sound for this set is his addition of the London Community Gospel Choir on several tracks, invigorating his music with power and joy in a variety of contexts.
References to the Almighty abound, particularly on the Abattoir Blues disc. The most obvious is the first track, "Get Ready for Love," which isn't lurid in theme, but rather focused on love in a greater scope the same way that Taylor Sorensen does. As indicated by the lyrics cited above, there's little reason to believe that Cave isn't being sincere and literal in his wishes to worship the Lord before "the gate to the Kingdom swings shut and closes."
He similarly focused on Judgment Day in the creepy alternative blues of "Hiding All Away," which includes some unusual and ugly imagery, but ultimately concludes, "We all know there is a law, and that law, it is love/And we all know there's a war coming, coming from above." The wording of "Carry Me" is rather ambiguous, but toward the end Cave clearly asks, "Who will lay down their hammer, who will put up their sword/And pause to see the mystery of the Word?" And in "O Children," he proclaims, "I was held in chains, but now I'm free … We all are jumping on the train that goes to the Kingdom."
Scriptural references continue in many other songs, but their context become increasingly harder to sort out. One of the album's most transcendent songs is "There She Goes My Beautiful World," a glorious blend of classic rock reminiscent of The Rolling Stones with joyful gospel. But despite singing about "asking for nothing in this life … give me everlasting life," Cave seems to be about struggling with creativity in the pursuit of immortality through fame. "Let the Bells Rings" makes references to Holy Communion and life in Heaven, but it is reportedly about the late Johnny Cash. "Cannibal's Hymn" seems to be about protection from temptation, but it's unclear who or what the cannibals represent. "Messiah Ward," meanwhile, has no spirituality beyond its title, and the meaning behind the bizarre "Fable of the Brown Ape" will only elude the majority of people Cave is trying to preach to.
So what does this all say about Cave's beliefs? Not even his most devout fans can say for sure. Many Christians will understandably have trouble getting past the ugly imagery, the occasional misrepresentations of God, and the sexual innuendo in love songs like "Nature Boy." To be clear, Cave should be reserved for the most surefooted in faith looking for something challenging spiritually and artistically. Trying to understand Cave's continued fascination with the Lord is interesting, especially when it's set to some of his most captivating music in years.
Unless specified clearly, we are not implying whether this artist is or is not a Christian. The views expressed are simply the author's. For a more complete description of our Glimpses of God articles, click here