Excess, Transgression, Immersion: Nick Cave’s Gothic Encounters

Posted by Finn Daniels-Yeomans on September 15, 2015 in Blog, Finn Daniels-Yeomans tagged with , , , , , , , , ,

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds @ Lotto Arena 18/11/2013


If ‘Gothic is a writing of excess’ (Botting 1996: 1), if it is characterised by the extreme, the over-the-top, the melodramatic, then this proclivity is not simply a matter of aesthetics, but belies a more fundamental concern with the perforation of those limits that define the appropriate and the acceptable. Gothic’s stylistic excesses, as Fred Botting has argued, are the manifestation of a fascination with transgression, with the overstepping of boundaries that hold our social realities in their conventional shape. It is precisely this dynamic of limit and transgression that links the cultural outputs of Nick Cave to the Gothic mode.

From ‘the snarling madman on vocals’ (Baker 2013: 3) of his 1980s post-punk band The Birthday Party, to The Bad Seeds’s overly violent Murder Ballads (1996), his move into dystopian fiction-writing and his canonisation as an ‘icon’ of contemporary Goth (Spooner 2006: 9), Cave’s work has always been associated with the Gothic tradition. This, in the first instance, has to do with his preoccupation with ‘dark’ subject matter: in narratives of trauma, heartbreak, murder and suicide, Cave obsessively probes the deficiencies of the human soul. Gothic, which shares Cave’s fascination with ‘objects and practices that are constructed as negative’ (Botting 1996: 1), is distinguishable both for its attraction to the sinister, and for the extremity of its vocabulary: fictions of this kind register and then condense fears that threaten to disrupt the stability of our social realities, giving immediate, palpable form to dangers that might otherwise appear less material and harder to grasp. The Gothic impulse, then, is in some sense synonymous with intensification; it is an action that forges demons and dungeons from more mundane figures and sites of unease.

This is what Botting intends when he writes of Gothic ‘excess’, and it is also arguably the definitive feature of Cave’s own aesthetic. His discography includes a plethora of songs about morally corrupt and marginalised figures: serial killers, demonic women and sadistic anti-heroes feature as frequently in Cave’s oeuvre as they do in the wider Gothic canon. Macabre underworlds, moonlit forests and urban wastelands — all typically Cavean settings — work further to situate his texts in Gothic territory, which, as Botting writes, is itself invariably ‘desolate, alienating and full of menace’ (1996: 2). Cave’s creative programme thus entails a heightening, distilling function, and his work becomes properly Gothic in those instances where this intensification is brought to bear on the kind of anxious subject matter for which the Gothic is infamous. One just needs to think of the excessively violent reimagining of Orpheus in Orpheus’s Lyre (from Abattoir Blues / The Lyre of Orpheus), or of the industrial, post-punk screaming guitars that accompany the Bad Seed’s cover of the murderous story of Stagger Lee, or of The Birthday Party’s comedy number Release the Bats to discern the extent to which Cave’s workis Gothic both in its content and its vividly excessive style.

Cave’s gothic world is thus indeed one of excess and is produced by an artist who is self-consciously constructing a cultural outlook that is bleaker than bleak. However, it is not merely the case that, as Isabella Van Elferen states, ‘like any other Gothic writer Cave exults in stylistic excess’ (2013: 179). Cave’s work is a writing of excess, but its Gothicism is not limited to stylistics alone; rather its aesthetics give way the more fundamental transgressive dynamic which Botting sees as integral to the Gothic mode (Botting 1996: 5). Even as Cave’s work reads as a pastiche of Gothic tropes — ghost stories, bats, death, mutilation — it also participates in the violation of entrenched cultural boundaries and the disruption of oppositional categories that constitutes the Gothic (ur)impulse.

As Van Elferen states, Gothic transgression exists ‘in the liminality between such opposites as past and present, life and death, good and evil’ (2013:180); transgression thus signifies a violation of paradigmatic boundaries through the simultaneous confluence of seemingly disparate elements. As ‘a music riven with tensions […] that thrives on […] juxtapositions and lets them speak, undercut, ironise, separate, clash, join and create strange new alliances and meanings’ (McAvoy 2007: 80), Cave’s creative output, the principles of which he outlines in his lecture ‘The Secret Life of the Loves Song’, can be seen to embody this gothic transgressive impulse. A meditation on the potentials of the love song, this essay explicitly articulates his creative philosophy as one that is reliant upon the conflation of opposites and the transgression of bounded limits. ‘The love song’, Cave writes, ‘must be born into the realm of the irrational and the absurd’. ‘For the love song is never truly happy … [I]t must first embrace the potential for pain’; it must ‘resonate with the whispers of sorrow and the echoes of grief’ (Cave 2013: 8).

At the heart of Cave’s creative process then is the impulse to relocate the boundaries that divide opposites; this is achieved by placing conventionally incompatible elements together in search of new creative potentials. His love songs are full of sorrow, his lyrics are simultaneously discomforting and appealing, and as a result, his music is captivating and disturbing, enticing and alienating. Through his song-writing, Cave creates a world in which ‘apparently opposite sentiments … [are] not mutually exclusive’ (Cave 2013: 10-11). Here, category distinctions become fluid and open the way for the infinite and diverse combination of conventionally distinctly separate concepts. Love intermingles with hate, terror with eroticism, gospel gives way to punk and Cave’s voice, at times soothing at others howling, is mercurial enough to catch these protean shifts.

This wide-ranging violation of boundaries, central both to Cave’s creative philosophy and to the Gothic mode, speaks to the desire to transcend the narrow strictures of rational thought and logical possibility. It is a blending action, furthermore, that is not exclusively stylistic or representational: it is not merely Cave’s intention to show us logical categories of sense in crisis. Cave is rather seeking to enact this crisis by implicating his listeners within it, forcing them to encounter his irrational world where conventional bounded divisions have begun to crumble. Thus, as  Cave writes, his music responds to ‘our need to be torn away from our senses’ (2013: 11),  and as such it functions to draw listeners into the song, to break down the distance between text and spectator and to ‘touch’ audiences, as he states, ‘with the hand of that which is not of this world’.

This touching is achieved through his continual refusal to operate in a lexicon of clearly defined categories. His work fails to present us with recognisable concepts (love, for example, is never simply about tenderness and joy) and as such it functions to perplex, discomfort and ultimately to alienate spectators. Although at one level this strategy may seem to exclude the spectator, it is, somewhat paradoxically, precisely the irrational, inconsistent, unpredictable nature of Cave’s songs that forces us as audiences to move closer to the text. No longer able to rely on the readily accessible categorical definitions through which we habitually make sense of the world, we as spectators are forced to perpetually engage and creatively to negotiate the song. Instead of receiving the meaning or message of the text – an encounter underpinned by a logic of transmission between separate entities – spectators are never allowed to establish a critical distance with song, but are made instead to remain caught in an endless process of interpretation. In this way, Cave’s music continuously immerses us in – and does not separate us from – the song. It develops from a creative impulse to transgress the distance between artistic text and spectator.

It is in this respect that Cave’s work is typical of the primary function of what Van Elferen terms ‘Gothic music’ (Van Elferen 2013: 186). This functions not only to give voice to a self-consciously and excessively Gothic style, and is further not defined solely by the representation of transgression. Rather, Gothic music, as Van Elferen argues, allows audiences actively to participate in the Gothic process of boundary-crossing; it opens the way for ‘the access of Gothic audiences into the fissure between medium and message’ (Van Elferen 2013: 186). Gothic music thus not only underlines the importance of excess to the mode both at the level of style and content; it also ‘simultaneously enables an active engagement in the transgressive practices’ (186). It renders Gothic ‘three-dimensional, inhabitable, spatio-temporally infinite’ (186). Cave’s desire to break down the distance between song and listener exemplifies this making-accessible of Gothic transgression; his desire to break down the distance between song and listener defines him less as a Gothic writer of excess than, as van Elferen puts it, a Gothic writer of ‘access’ (186).

In the following weeks, I will explore Cave’s writing of access more fully. Focussing on particular narrative song-texts, on the experience of listening, and on the significance of performance to Cave’s creative programme, I will consider his ability to put his audiences in touch with his transgressive world and locate the Gothic as one lynchpin of his strategy.


* Parts of this blog draw on research conducted jointly with Rebecca Duncan for a forthcoming article.



Baker, John. H. (2013), ‘Introduction: Nick Cave, Twenty-first-century Man’, in The Art of Nick Cave: New Critical Essays. Bristol: Intellect, p.1-9.

Botting, F. (1996), Gothic, London: Routledge.

Cave, N. (2013), ‘The Secret Life of the Love Song’, in The Complete Lyrics of Nick Cave, 1978-2013, London: Penguin.

Spooner, C. (2006), Contemporary Gothic, London: Reaktion.

Van Elferen, I. (2013), ‘Nick Cave and Gothic: Ghost stories, Fucked Organs, Spectral Liturgy’, in The Art of Nick Cave, p. 175-188.

Tiny URL for this post: http://tinyurl.com/o9g57jy