Does an artist need to believe—or at the very least consider—the existence of God (or the divine, a higher power, or whatever it is you want to call it) in order to create transcendent work?
That’s the question I’ve been wrestling with ever since listening to an advanced copy of the audiobook for Nick Cave and journalist Seán O’Hagan’s Faith, Hope and Carnage (yes, apparently I’ve made enough unhinged rabid fan noises to get on the Cave team and Macmillan Audio’s radar), a freewheeling book-length series of conversations held between the duo during the pandemic. In one of these discussions within the second chapter “The Utility of Belief,” Nick poses, what I assume in many circles, will be quite a controversial opinion. He says, “…from where I’m standing, an explicit rejection of the divine has to be bad for the business of songwriting. Atheism has to be bad for the business of making music. It has to put you at a distinct disadvantage because it’s a kind of narrowing of options and a denial of the fundamentally sacred dimension of music. It’s very limiting, in my experience.” I can hear your heathen moans and groans now, and so can he. “Many people will, of course, disagree…” he continues.
My first thought was…well, that’s bullshit. But after extensive meandering consideration for days on end, on walks, on runs, making dinner, in the shower, I suspect, much to my own surprise and probably many of dearest readers’ chagrin, that I don’t, in fact, disagree. Though I’m particularly fascinated by the extreme behavior that fanatical devotion inspires, I’ve never really had time for it myself. Yet I’m also increasingly repulsed by the kneejerk rejection of belief that circulates around good intellectual circles–often voiced loudly and in a manner that makes sure to divide rational thinkers from those feeble-minded, probably phobic morons who need something to grab hold of like a drowning person at sea. Of course, this is a symptom of its own kind of tiresome rigid dogmatic thinking. A kind of tiresome rigid dogmatic thinking that seems to run through most aspects of our culture, which is, I believe, antithetical to good art—and a fairly accurate explanation of why most contemporary art lately, imbued with an unwavering moral certitude, is just oh-so-uninteresting.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: Emily, you’d just agree with Nick on anything. Not so fast—I don’t think most of the hostility, cynicism, self-righteousness, misery, and division in our culture can be boiled down to its increasing secular nature, which he also theorizes while additionally asserting that “religion has a lot to answer for” and “organized religion can be atheism’s greatest gift.” Yet, more than deciding whether or not Nick Cave is full of shit with all his career-long, wavering between belief and doubt, God business, I found it thrilling that these ideas were even raised, perhaps perilously so, and debated in long-form candid conversations—a seemingly disappearing practice that likely goes a long way towards combatting the aforementioned hostility, cynicism, self-righteousness, misery, and division in our culture.
Of course, it’s not just the high-minded metaphysical discussions within Faith, Hope and Carnage that lingered with me since listening to the audiobook with such intensity that my internal monologue took on the sound of Nick Cave’s dulcet tones. The part of my brain that wasn’t battling itself over a musical necessary belief in the divine was given over to the image, presented at the end of the audiobook’s exclusive final 12-minutes, of Nick Cave panic-buying a hundred cans of baked beans in a fury of pandemic paranoia, sending them to his sons, and responding to their confusion with the vague threat: “Something’s coming down the line.” Imagine Nick Cave’s doomsday-shopping spree in Costco. I wonder how much toilet paper he still has.
More surprising than Nick Cave as prepper, though, is that Faith, Hope and Carnage exists at all. Nick isn’t exactly known as being fond of journalists. As a subject, as seen in Public Enemy #1 Matt Snow’s collection of Cave interviews, Nick Cave: Sinner Saint, Nick historically has been closed-off, reserved, defensive, more than a little intimidating, and occasionally physically combative with reporters. Just take a listen to his homicidal grievance song “Scum” to see how much he loved the practice of music criticism. And when he wasn’t penning hate anthems or throwing punches, he bluntly and sarcastically tossed questions back in the face of reporters as seen in the 1987 documentary Stranger in a Strange Land when asked about the pessimism in his music: “I don’t see how I can really answer this question and why it should even be asked really.” More recently, Marc Maron publicly admitted that Nick was the hardest interview he ever conducted on WTF. Even after Nick’s 15-year-old son, Arthur died, a devastating and shattering loss that also kickstarted an opening outward towards the world, he shrugged off interviews entirely, seeing articles, rightfully so, as somehow diminishing. I mean, he begins Faith, Hope and Carnage with the pseudo-disclaimer: “Interviews, in general, suck. Really. They eat you up. I hate them.” Well, then!
Despite O’Hagan’s day job, Faith, Hope and Carnage should be understood in another context. Much of Nick’s recent output has been defined by, what I’ve previously called, generosity, but after reading Faith, Hope and Carnage, I’d categorize more accurately as exchange. This ranges from his In Conversation events to The Red Hand Files to the communal transformational catharsis of his live shows to his emphasis on collaboration with Warren Ellis to even, the touching (literally) interactive portions of his career-spanning archival exhibition Stranger Than Kindness: The Nick Cave Exhibition. Faith, Hope and Carnage belongs as a part of this trajectory. More important than his background as a journalist, O’Hagan is Cave’s longtime friend and, more notably, someone who has also grieved a sudden devastating loss. Likely because of both, Seán and Nick’s conversations are marked by not only mutual respect even when they disagree (and they DO disagree) but “a radical intimacy,” as one of the chapters is titled. At some points, Seán comes off as Nick’s therapist and a good one at that, which bolsters rather than undermines the intimacy of the conversation. This is not to say there aren’t a few moments that briefly turn contentious. There’s a notable part that echoes a memorably tense 1989 interview (yes, I’m an endless repository of Nick Cave factoids and quotes) in which Nick asks after extended drug days talk: “Is that what we’re doing here? Talking about my life? Reminiscing about the bad old days in the middle of a fucking pandemic?”
A few bitchy instances aside, the intimacy between Nick and Seán is mesmerizingly captured by the audiobook, which is directed and produced by fellow Nick Cave super-fans Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard who previously directed the Cave pseudo-doc 20,000 Days on Earth and expertly organized several of the installations in Stranger Than Kindness. I’ll admit, I am not an audiobook listener/reader generally. Yet, I cannot imagine experiencing Faith, Hope and Carnage any other way, and am curious to see how the physical copy of the book translates, which I had, naturally, as a psychotic fan, already preordered before being approached with the blessed audio copy. Laying on my couch, listening through headphones, it was almost as if I was wedged between Nick and Seán, eavesdropping on their expansive, revealing conversations, with the dialogue enlivened by Nick’s huffs of laughter and Seán’s brief asides, along with short bursts of relevant songs from Skeleton Tree, Ghosteen, and Carnage, as well as a few vague Warren Ellis synth-based noises, at the end of each chapter.
It’s not easy to succinctly describe the meandering, at times, head-spinning, high-and-low-and-everything-in-between lost highway of Nick and Seán’s conversations in the book, but the best way would probably be simply: somewhere between God and a can of dread-bought baked beans. The book begins as a slow-burning, fairly straightforward, palpably uncertain discussion of the “conceptual leap” of The Bad Seeds’ 2019 epic album Ghosteen, the “strange, haunted time” of its recording, and the improvisational chemistry between Nick and Warren Ellis. This is not to brush off the first chapter as some tiresome slog. I’m particularly struck by Nick’s recollection of the ecstatic vision that inspired the album:
“I had a persistent mental image of a man standing on a beach surrounded by panicking animals; the hills were on fire, there were screaming animals racing back and forward, sea creatures leaping out of the ocean, and a spiral of spirit children that climbed up to the sun. It was a wild recurring hallucination, part horror, part bliss, that somehow embedded itself in my imagination. I’d lie in bed at night and see these images, filing by, one after the other.”
Yet for anyone outside of unhinged fans, this in-depth discussion of an album might be taxing, probably much like my glut of recent articles devoted to Nick Cave. Deal with it. However, after the first chapter, as the twosome get more comfortable as conversational partners, the book blossoms into a surprising and brave series of discussions, much more interesting than a definitive tome about the life of Nick Cave. This ranges from philosophical considerations about grief, love, freedom, absolution, and belief, to hardened road stories, including a banger about his one missed Birthday Party concert in NYC after being arrested trying to score on Avenue A, to his longtime influences such as his mind-meld with his wife Susie and a list of four religious artworks that had a major impact on him (three of which I’ve used here to illustrate this essay since I have no idea what John the Baptist painting he’s talking about at London’s National Gallery). There’s a little something for everyone, even some perpetually unsatisfied old-school Bad Seeds fans who will likely be interested to hear Nick discuss his working relationships with past Seeds Mick Harvey and Blixa Bargeld, including Blixa’s Muppet-related final straw with the band while filming “I Feel So Good” for a Wim Wenders blues documentary. Hell–there’s even a reference to the “Shit for Kids” bucket hat on Cave Things, which has become something of a token of ongoing bafflement and amusement for my Nick Cave fanatic friends.
Much of the book’s winding conversational path has to do with the circumstances of its construction out of a series of phone calls recorded from August 2020 to just after the U.K.Carnage tour. The book starts with Nick as he expresses a guilty sense of relief after the cancellation of 2020’s Ghosteen tour, which frankly sounds like an overblown affair with 10-12 choral members and lighting effects, a stark contrast with the spare stripped-back Nick Cave and Warren Ellis Carnage shows. The book, then, follows Nick through various creative endeavors, from the familiar frustration with the “bloody business” of writing a new album that would become, Carnage, to the thrill of breakthroughs such as the heavenly “Lavender Fields,” which he wrote on his couch in 20 minutes, to his newfound passion for ceramics and his Staffordshire-inspired series of figurines based on the life of the Devil (which are now making their museum debut at Sara Hildén Art Museum in Tampere, Finland with Thomas Houseago and Brad Pitt—someone buy me a ticket to Finland). Each of these sparks a flurry of ideas and pushes the conversation forward. Sometimes this is in the form of analysis of the developing recurring imagery on Carnage and other times nitty-gritty details of Nick’s unflappably regimented and manically furious creative drive.
Other key moments within this time frame, though, are not quite so exhilarating. Nick’s mother Dawn Cave died during quarantine, as did highly influential former Bad Seed and Nick’s ex-partner Anita Lane. Both Dawn and Anita get their own dedicated chapter in the book, filled with rememberences that Nick may not have shared otherwise. Though I was moved by and certainly relate to a mother whose “unconditional support enabled me to do whatever it is I’ve done in life,” as a passionate Lane fanatic I was held rapt by the light Nick shed about what the enigmatic singer had been doing for all these years after the release of 2001’s Sex O’Clock and her collaborations with Mick Harvey. She had been living in an overgrown house, acting as a mother figure to not only her children but a bunch of wayward neighborhood lost boys (or girls). After her death, it was discovered she also left a whole lot of “beautiful, eerie” art, namely a series of about 200 redesigned dolls including one of Susie Cave. Please someone do a show. I’d even fly to Australia for it. Really. Heck–I’ll curate it. You know I love dolls.
This doll discovery leads Nick to discuss his long-held frustration with what he felt was Anita’s wasted potential. He notes, “I guess on some level I always felt she had been given this extraordinary gift and yet somehow the world had been denied the full extent of it.” In contrast to her adherence to Swiss Dadaist Arthur Craven’s belief that “The best art is never seen,” Nick counters, “…as far as I’m concerned, the work I do is entirely relational, actually transactional, and has no real validity unless it is animated by others. It does not exist in its true form unless it moves through the heart of others as a balm. Otherwise, it is just words and notes and little more.”
It’s no surprise that Nick and Anita didn’t see eye to eye on the value of sharing art. Throughout Faith, Hope and Carnage, it becomes clear that Nick sees a kind of mystical and even metaphysical power in songwriting. Though his understanding of Ghosteen as an “imagined world where Arthur could be” influences this notion, he’s articulated his belief in the predictive nature of songs before in 1998’s The Secret Life of the Love Song, a lecture that Seán references frequently (much to Nick’s dismay). In that lecture, he analyzed The Boatman’s Call’s “Far From Me,” which details the deterioration of a relationship, penned before that relationship even deteriorated in real life. While that might have been freaky, it has nothing on the unsettling songs on 2016’s Skeleton Tree. With the exception of the song “Skeleton Tree,” as well as the addition of the “blue-eyed boy” reference in “Girl in Amber,” the songs on Skeleton Tree were written before his son Arthur’s tragic fall. Which makes the line “You fell from the sky and landed in a field near the River Adur” that opens the album absolutely alarming. No matter how woo it may seem—and if anything Faith, Hope and Carnage reveals that Nick Cave is more than a little woo, it’s hard to argue that songs don’t have a prophetic element when faced with that.
More than songs as creepy fortune tellers, Nick also frequently asserts that music is imbued with the possibility of communal healing and a momentary respite from suffering. He says, “I don’t believe our artistic gifts are given to us entirely for our own amusement. Songs are too valuable for that. Once again, Seán, songs are a force. They can make people better, they help people, and with that lies a responsibility.” Seán, for his part, pushes back against a lot of these ideas, particularly the temporariness of any sort of musical transformation or the inability to really measure if people are, in fact, made better by music. And rightfully so. I mean, let’s be honest, take some of Nick’s own music: Does “Jangling Jack” make people better? Ok, sure, it certainly inspires me to go do-da-do and shake the heavens in karaoke. But, I don’t think that’s quite what he means. “I think music, out of all that we can do, at least artistically, is the great indicator that something else is going on, something unexplained, because it allows us to experience genuine moments of transcendence” Nick asserts.
And here were are, back at God again.
For any other musician, all the God talk in Faith, Hope and Carnage might be a symptom of some sort of born-again, post-drugs, post-bottoming-out, trauma-driven desperation. But, Nick has always wrestled with the existence of God—or at least, given in to a monomaniacal obsession with the Bible and religious imagery, from spewing fire and brimstone during the Old Testament 1980s to “unraveling the mysteries of Jesus Christ the Savior” in the New Testament 1990s to, of course, the “peace will come,” “kingdom in the sky,” Seven Psalms present. Much to others’ horror. He mentions with a laugh a reporter thirty years previous that kickstarted an interview with a caveat: “Before we even begin, I’ve been told by my editor, ‘Don’t get him started on God.’”
Nick himself, in the book, traces a throughline of yearning for belief throughout his life and career, starting with his hilariously morbid childhood desire that the little cross he purchased from his church’s gift shop was made from the actual cross. Some of his own analysis made me think of Mick Harvey’s perhaps unwelcome take in Ian Johnston’s Cave biography Bad Seed: “One tendency Nick has is to rewrite history from his current perspective. He tends to describe what his motivations were then through the perspective of what his motivations are now.” While we all are guilty of this to some extent, I also can’t argue with Nick’s observation of the berserk havoc of The Birthday Party as having a religious element: “…with all that rolling around on stage and purging of demons and speaking in tongues. It was old time, God-bothering religion! Or at the very least, preoccupied with religious matters.” Nor can I dispute his even earlier interest in religion either. I saw his name scrawled in the family Bible in Stranger Than Kindness.
What makes this religious (not spiritual) discussion palatable is not only the undogmatic perspectives of both Nick and Seán, who leans much more towards skepticism than Nick, but also the room made for doubt, ambivalence, disbelief, and acceptance of the illogical absurdity of belief. Even more than God as the bearded man in the sky, Nick gives himself over to a David Lynch-level fixation on mystery. Nick describes, “…part of the fire and energy of my life comes from the fact that I devote a significant portion of my time to thinking about and agonizing over something that may well not exist! So, in a way, it may be the doubt, the uncertainty, and the mystery that animates the whole thing.” It’s not just the mystery of belief, though. There’s the mystery of the gift shop cross merch. The mystery of Stevie Smith’s poems where you’re “held one step before knowing.” And the mystery at the heart of songwriting. As David Lynch himself explains, in a book of his collected interviews, “I love a mystery that at the end of the mystery allows you room to dream. Continue the dream.”
That dream, for Nick, is clearly illuminated by grief. It’s impossible to understand Faith, Hope and Carnage—or really, read, listen to, or watch anything Nick has produced after Arthur’s death—without that context. Toss in a newer tragic context. The publication of Faith, Hope and Carnage comes just a few months after Nick’s older son Jethro died. I mean, fuck. Though I’m curious about how Nick’s views have changed—if they have, grief is explored in Faith, Hope and Carnage with a depth and complexity that I’ve rarely seen elsewhere. In particular, the duo examine the many multifaceted forms and distortions that grief can take. There’s grief as “an atrocious destabilizing assault upon the body.” Grief “as a gift…as a positive force.” Grief “as a kind of exalted state.” Grief as forcing the griever to be “deeply acquainted with the idea of human mortality.” Grief as drawing “closer to the veil that separates this world from the next.” And with grief, as well as the outpouring of support from fans and fellow grievers and small acts of kindness from ordinary people like a worker he recalls at a vegetarian takeaway in Brighton who silently squeezed his hand, came a newfound empathy and appreciation for other people. It’s hard not to be moved when the same man who once garbled out a guilty plea to misanthropy on “Wings off Flies” from 1984’s From Her To Eternity asserts: “I matter. You matter. We are of consequence.”
It’s not just, for lack of a better word, theoretical dives into the nature of grief, done with Nick’s quintessential articulateness, even about experiences that so commonly bump up against language’s inadequacies. In a later chapter, Nick details, in a devastatingly cinematic burst of recalled memories, the day of Arthur’s death, including Susie listening to the radio right before the call about Arthur’s abandoned knapsack and phone, an image that appears right before the tonal shift in Ghosteen’s “The Spinning Song” (“the last unbroken memory of my wife”). This is a moment in the book that is not only painful but completely unexpected. Not only due to Nick’s typically private disposition about the explicitly personal, but especially in the context of Andrew Dominik’s 2016 documentary One More Time With Feeling, filmed around the recording of Skeleton Tree in the wake of Arthur’s death. One of the aspects I remember most about that film, other than the sinking feeling I carried around for days afterward, was Nick’s total loss for words. Struck nearly speechless, he would trail off mid-sentence. Long pauses. Ideas never fully formed. It was as if someone whose entire career was built on a compulsive passion for words suddenly had none. And he certainly isn’t alone in this. In what may be the most profound moment in the book, a letter sent to Nick’s Red Hand Files from a reader Tiffany from Fremantle, Australia presents the experience of the loss of her son in the form of a poem. With its fractured imagery and halting stops and starts, it details that exact wordlessness on view in One More Time With Feeling.
Nick’s loss for words was remarkably counter to how he previously detailed the impact of his father’s death (himself an English instructor and passionate bibliophile) in The Secret Life of the Love Song: “The loss of my father created in my life a vacuum, a space in which my words began to float and collect and find their meaning.” Thrown into the grief of losing a child, it seems that Nick had to crawl back to the place where words could again find their meaning. Throughout Faith, Hope and Carnage, he emphasizes the importance of talking about grief despite its untranslatability. “I have since come to understand that there is little headway that we can make around grief until we can learn to articulate it–speak it, say it out loud, sing about it, write it down, or whatever,” he says. The issue here, though, is that grief is not often spoken about—not beyond the kind of empty platitudes that only serve to antagonize the bereaved. Nick, for his part, has attempted to open spaces for, as he says, “a form of healing through the combined acts of telling and listening” like The Red Hand Files.
Yet I think Faith, Hope and Carnage‘s ambitions skew even larger than finally nailing down how to talk about the vastness of grief or even just yet another Cave-related treat for dedicated fans. Instead, the book lays bare what seems to be a dying art: conversation. Several times in the book Nick mentions not having anyone to talk to about certain topics: not only grief but religion and his own songs, which he admits many people hesitate to ask him about (Not me, Nick! I’ll talk to you about your songs). And neither did I, mostly because I had to sign an NDA to get a copy of the audiobook, which goes a long way to explaining why this essay is over 4000 words. It’s the Cave team’s fault that I had to spew all my pent-up ideas here!
But it’s not only us. In 2022, most discourse consists of talking at each other, whether needing something from someone, self-promotion (I see you in my DMs), hysterical rants, or shouts into the abyss that count as communication on social media. Certainly, there’s no room for debating big topics like God or, probably Nick’s most controversial—yet I think accurate—opinion, woke culture’s relation to “the very worst aspects of religion–the fundamentalist, joyless, sanctimonious aspects that have nothing to do with mercy.” And Lord help you if you’re wrong, disagree with the prevailing opinion, or platform what turns out to be “problematic.” So instead, our ideas just percolate in our own brains, alone, with nobody to reality test them as we get more and more extreme, pushed to the brink by algorithms, echo chambers, and groupthink. And well, we’ve seen how that turns out with people in Viking helmets storming the Capitol to drink Fireball and shit on Nancy Pelosi’s desk. Things aren’t all that pretty on the Left either.
The salve to this rash of “dualistic” thinking seems to be open conversations akin to the one presented in Faith, Hope and Carnage. And both Nick and Seán know it too, as they tip their hand in the book’s Epilogue. Responding to a question from Seán about conversations being threatened by “the increasingly divided nature of our contemporary political and cultural discourse,” Nick reflects:
“Yes, for sure. I’ve always enjoyed freewheeling conversations, if only because talking can often reflect back on us the folly of our own ideas. In certain circles there is a notion that by having a dialogue with someone whose views conflict with your own, you might be giving oxygen to bad ideas. What an appalling idea that is. We need to talk about contentious ideas as much as possible, for our own health and the health of society. In any case, I have quite a lot of time for bad ideas. I’m full of them, as you know!”
For the people holding the conversation, the practice can allow them to hone, question, and even revise or dismiss their own opinions. “Sometimes you need to say out loud what you think or talk to someone else about the ideas you hold, just in order to just see if they are valid. It helps clarify things for me to be challenged on my beliefs. This is the essential value of conversation, that it can serve as a kind of corrective,” Nick explains. There is a similar value in simply listening to or reading these types of extended conversations too, which is why I’ve always been drawn to books of interviews and conversations such as Lynch on Lynch, as well as long-form podcasts like *gasp* The Joe Rogan Experience. Even if you do find yourself, from time to time, rolling your eyes at what’s said. That—“the great privilege of being allowed to be wrong”—is also of worth.
All of which clarifies the curious final lines of the song “Ghosteen,” which now read like a striking foreshadowing to Faith, Hope and Carnage‘s emphasis on the utmost essentialness of conversation as learning, as exchange, as survival through suffering, as healing, as connection, as grace. After a whirlwind clash of hallucinatory imagery, including baby bear floating up to the moon in a boat and animals rising from their blood to walk, the vocals slow to a crawl as Nick sings: “Well the moon won’t get a wink of sleep if I stay all night and talk. If I stay all night and talk.”