“All that’s sacred comes from youth,” sang Eddie Vedder way back in 1995, and whatever your views on the merits of Pearl Jam’s music, there’s rarely been a more succinct summation of rock ‘n’ roll’s constant obsession with youthful vigor and the next big thing. Ever since its earliest days, rock music has been an art form based around mythology of iconoclasm and rebellion, its history laden with periodic revolts against the old and declarations of some sort of cultural year zero when everything is new again.
This, of course, raises the question of what happens when rock ‘n’ roll’s protagonists get old. We’ve been thinking about such things this week with the arrival of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ new album Push the Sky Away, a record that continues Cave’s latter-day obsession with being rock ‘n’ roll’s dirtiest older man.
The general trend is that singers who started off as tearaways and firebrands calm down as they grow older, settling into maturity. Specifically, they tend to stop singing about sex, or at least tone down their raunchiness in deference to their passing years. After all, there’s nothing particularly dignified in an old dude singing about sex, is there?
Cave, however, has gone in the other direction, putting sexuality front and center in his songs more and more as the years have gone by. His affection for the love song has been well-documented, but early in his career, his songs were dominated by his obsession with Southern Gothic imagery and themes of God and death, reading at times like an antipodean Cormac McCarthy — take the apocalyptic Elvis-themed creation myth of “Tupelo,” or the death row epic “The Mercy Seat,” or looking even further back, the Birthday Party-era “Swampland,” which played like a lyrical dress rehearsal for his debut novel, And the Ass Saw the Angel.
All these were interspersed with love songs, of course, but at first, at least, songs that dealt with matters of the heart were the exception, rather than the rule. As the years went by, though, love songs started to dominate Cave’s output — he quite literally let love in, slowly but surely. The Boatman’s Call felt like the watershed — an album dominated by somber, unadorned love songs, including some of the finest examples of the form that anyone’s written anywhere.
Even then, though, his songs were rarely sexy, wreathed as they were in weirdly formal language and portentous imagery. Who else could describe hitting on a girl by relating, “I turned to the woman/ The woman was young/ I extended a hearty salutation,” as Cave did on No More Shall We Part track “Hallelujah”? If there was sexuality in Cave’s music, it was only hinted at in his lyrics — describing “the smell of her still on my hands,” for instance, in “Brompton Oratory.” Rather, it was in the singer himself, in his delivery and and his general aura (this is, after all, a man with two sons born ten days apart to separate women.)
It wasn’t until the extended moustache crisis of Grinderman that Cave really started getting explicitly randy. Suddenly, the man responsible for “Into My Arms” was howling about having the no pussy blues like he’d somehow been possessed by the spirit of Jon Spencer. It’s a trend that’s continued with Push the Sky Away, something that won’t be surprising to anyone who’s seen the album’s cover art. Take “Mermaids,” for instance, which starts with the, um, memorable lines: “She was a catch/ We were a match/ I was the match that would light up her snatch.”
He’s hardly the only singer to claim life in the old dog, of course — a 71-year-old Leonard Cohen smirked in 2004’s “Because Of,” for instance, that “because of a few songs I wrote wherein I spoke of their mystery/ Women have been exceptionally kind to my old age.” But it’s interesting that this priapic persona has come to dominate Cave’s lyrics over recent years. In a thoughtful piece about Cave and Lou Reed, Consequence of Sound’s Jeremy D. Larson noted that “as Cave gets older, it gets harder to distance the objects in his songs with Cave himself. ”
It feels like a very deliberate decision — after all, Cave could have continued with his piano ballads until the cows came home. Instead, though, it feels like he’s decided to deal with the reality of being an aging rock star by embracing the absurdity of that idea and playing it up as much as he can. Whereas, say, Mick Jagger blankly refuses to acknowledge that the sight of a 69-year-old man in a leotard is any way different from that of a 29-year-old man in a leotard, Cave not only acknowledges that fact, he wears it with pride. In this respect, he’s actually remarkably similar to Bono, another serious and spiritual singer who made a conscious decision to be more lighthearted and even (shudder) ironic.
What you make of all this as a Cave fan depends what side of the fence you sit on — some longtime fans who loathed his piano ballad period have enjoyed his return to abrasive rock ‘n’ roll (although musically, at least, they’ll be disappointed by the downbeat sounds of Push the Sky Away), while others find the spectacle of a great songwriter’s lyrics verging on self-parody to be kinda depressing. Either way, though, you get the impression that the man himself cares not a whit. In some ways, this is a perfect portrait of what age does to you — you care less about trivialities, and ultimately you do what pleases you. This manifests itself in different ways — Scott Walker gets more and more out-there with every record, John Cale dyes his hair pink, Kate Bush makes records if and when she feels like it, Lou Reed collaborates with Metallica and gets nastier to journalists with every passing year.
And Cave? Well, even if he’s shaved off his handlebar moustache and stopped dressing up like a Roman legionary, he’s going to sing about matches and snatches and whatever else he damn well pleases. Growing old disgracefully? How could we ever have expected anything else?