‘It is just rock ‘n roll, oh but it gets right down to your soul’: Gothic and Duende in Push the Sky Away

Posted by Finn Daniels-Yeomans on September 30, 2015 in Blog, Finn Daniels-Yeomans tagged with , , , , ,

In the previous blog, I outlined the extent to which within Nick Cave’s cultural output there exists a fundamental fascination with Gothic transgression, with the overstepping and breaking down of the conventional socio-cultural boundaries that hold our worlds in shape. This impulse manifests itself not only through Cave’s creation of a world where bounded divisions have begun to crumble, but more so in his attempt to immerse his listeners into this world through the collapsing of the boundary between the music and themselves. It is here that Cave’s music might most productively be called Gothic – that sign which, as Botting has argued, designates not only a dark stylistics of excess, but also belies a more fundamental obsession with border-crossings of all kinds. The following discussion – focusing on Cave’s latest album Push The Sky Away – addresses the song-writing strategies through which Cave attempts to draw his audiences into his distorted (Gothic) universe of porous boundaries. I argue that Cave’s uneasy aesthetics, in which conventionally irreconcilable categories seep into one other, are designed to disorientate listeners to the extent of overwhelming them. Confronted by Cave’s brand of Gothic transgression, that is, we become unable to extract from his song texts a clearly rendered meaning or emotive message. We thus find ourselves called to a non-habitual response, foregoing the paradigmatic structures which scaffold our familiar realities. Momentarily, we ‘lose our senses’ and are forced to inhabit the conceptual space of the song, finding ourselves navigating an irrational imaginative cartography, the contours of which are both thoroughly strange and unsettling.

Before unpacking the processes through which Cave achieves his disorientating immersion, we need to briefly establish the characteristics of the transgressive world into which he integrates his listeners. Cave’s latest album is one that condenses, develops, and alters some of the major hallmarks that have always characterised his musical output. As the title suggests, Push The Sky Away is an album that continues Cave’s interest in the ‘pushing’ of limits – musical or otherwise – that bound our world. This is apparent in the lyrics of the chorus to the title track that concludes that album: ‘If you got everything and you don’t want no more/ You’ve got to just keep on pushing, keep on pushing/ Push the sky away’. Indeed, the impulse to blur lines and collapse established boundaries is discernible at every level of the album’s production.The song narratives juxtapose the macabre, the comedic, the sombre and the supernatural, and are populated by a blend of mythical characters, real-world figures and apocalyptic imagery, all of which are realised through a lyrical style that is absurd and frequently threatening. At the same time, the music’s instrumental dimensions bring together minimalist blues, rumbling baselines, sparse percussion, looping guitar lines and infectious emotive crescendoes to form an ominous and oneiric backdrop for Cave’s baritone voice. In terms of the Gothic, Push the Sky Away represents a shift away from Cave’s earlier extrovert, quasi-parodic manipulation of hyperbolically Gothic tropes, towards a more nuanced exploration of the supernatural and the bizarre. While previous albums signalled an association with the Gothic through a borrowing of its stock figures, the strange fusings of this collection produce an atmosphere that is not so much extravagant ‘Gothic’, but rather otherworldly and perhaps more unsettling because of this.

The album’s opening song, ‘We No Who U R’, is built upon the combination of strange influences outlined above, and introduces listeners to the understated yet menacing mood of the collection as a whole. It begins with a melodic piano-driven chord progression and clean percussion that gives the song a peculiar pop-music aesthetic and accessibility. This, however, soon gives way to a typically disturbing Cavean aesthetic; we hear Cave’s grainy voice – in unison with delicate female backing vocals that are uneasy by contrast – sing out the sinister closing lyrics: ‘And we know who you are / And we know where you live / And we know there’s no need to forgive’. This ending, which lends an appealing sweetness to what is a thematically and lyrically a sinister song, exemplifies the strategy which informs Cave’s song-writing throughout the album. Push the Sky Away deals in unsettling incongruencies, frequently returning to sites of conceptual boundary transgression in a way that resonates with conceptions of the Gothic that emphasise its dissolution of binaries. Indeed, it is in light of the album’s fundamental blending dynamic – its persistent evocation of impossibly simultaneous concepts and sensations – that Push the Sky Away might most fruitfully be called Gothic. In ‘Higgs Boson Blues’, Lucifer and his ‘genocidal’ jaws appear in the same breath as the large hadron collider at Soern; in ‘Water’s Edge’, the familiar terrain of Brighton’s beachfront is populated by sinister siren creatures who ceaselessly ‘dismantle themselves like toys’: in these and other examples, the familiar and the foreign, the fantastic and the real, collide in a way that is both Gothically uneasy and allows for no resolution.

And if Cave draws on Gothic chiefly in order to conflate conventionally oppositional categorisations, then Gothic is also fundamental to his immersive project: the dissolution of divisions that characterise fictions of this kind is deployed, in Push the Sky Away, deliberately to disorientate the album’s listeners. Cave uses Gothic points of fusion to disrupt our ability to form a coherent response to his songs; he forecloses recourse to readily available, habitual or prescribed modes of engagement, and it is this which works to draw us into the text. Gothic strategies of disorientation, in other words, force listeners to become immersed in, and intoxicated by, the unheimlich world Cave creates. Because Push the Sky Away refuses to communicate to its audiences plot-elements that can be organised into a coherent narrative whole, but rather assails them with a miscellany of conflicting images, it arrests its listeners at the phase of meaning-making. We remain caught, in other words, in a tangled conceptual labyrinth, which does not resolve into some ‘message’ that we can cognitise and set aside, but ensures that we continue to inhabit the song – continue to wrestle with Lucifer and particle physics! – as we try to make sense where ultimately no sense is given to us.

It is thus significant that Cave’s songs on Push The Sky Away are not primarily about any one thing in particular; they are unconcerned with conveying narrative information to the listening audience. Rather, they are preoccupied with what they can do to their spectators, with the creation of a mood or a tone that is jarringly strange yet captivating. Cave comments on this in interview when he explains that the new album represents a departure from his previous focus on narrative storytelling. No longer ‘tied down to the tyranny of the narrative’ (Cave 2013a), Cave now seeks to expose listeners to a disorganised cacophony of music and imagery; we feel the complex sensations registered in the songs, and no longer follow their plotlines. Cave states that ‘these days the lyrics are more abstracted’. There ‘is no linear story as such’; there is rather ‘a visualness and an atmosphere that you enter at the beginning of the song’ (Cave 2013a). For Cave, then, the experience of listening to music is not about the dissemination and apprehension of a story or message. Instead, it lies in more visceral musical potentials, sensations which never coalesce to form a single, definable ‘meaning’, but are engaged at a somatic, and thus not-yet-rational, level: ‘the idea of music’, he writes, ‘is that you can put it on and it just enters your bloodstream in a kind of subconscious sort of way’ (Cave 2013a). ‘It’s just Rock and Roll,’ as he reiterates in the album’s closing lyric, ‘but it gets you right down to your soul’.

This idea of absorbing and being in turn absorbed by the song – instead of following its narrative or plot – comes close to the concept of ‘Duende’ that critics have used to approach Cave’s work. Cave himself references the Duende in his lecture ‘The Secret Life of the Lovesong’, and Sarah Wishart, in particular, has explored its wide applicability to his song-writing. Wishart, speaking of artworks that ‘send waves of emotion through those watching and listening’ (2013: 211), suggests that Duende, or having Duende, refers to a heightened state of emotional or affective intensity. The meaning of the Duende encapsulates something of the ‘unexplainable’, ‘unspeakable’ or ‘indefinable’; it is a singular ‘live moment’ (Wishart 2013: 211) – one that is living, that inheres in process – and it ‘affects the audience in the way it possesses them, makes them act’ (211). The emotive upheaval Duende stimulates is significantly as disruptive as it is affective. It throws the structure of established relations into disarray, and momentarily eradicates the distance separating song from spectator. Duende, on this view, functions as ‘an invisible link that binds artist to audience’ (Delgado qtd in Wishart 2013: 212). Formulated thus, it recalls the immersive function of Cave’s song texts that I have discussed here in relation to the Gothic. Duende, which signals an experience of sensations registered in the artwork, and is thus tantamount to a merging of subject with song, might be considered, I suggest, the effect of Gothic destabilisation.

Indeed, Wishart herself establishes an implicit relationship between the Gothic mode and the Duende. The vocabulary in which she discusses this last is undeniably Gothic: she likens Duende to ‘a ghost, an evil spirit’, which has a possessive ‘demoniacal intensity that sweeps audiences off their feet’ Wishart 2013:207). And this affiliation between Gothic and Duende runs deeper than metaphor. If Gothic’s characteristic refusal of conventional categorising boundaries functions to draw its audiences into the text, to ensure that spectators cannot arrive at a single meaning to which the song definitively leads them, and from which they might, once this is apprehended, simply move on, then the encapsulation of subject by song proper to the Duende appears a thoroughly Gothic phenomenon. Gothic, which, as Fred Betting writes, produces ‘emotional effects on its readers rather than developing a … properly cultivated response’ (1996: 3), works to mire its audiences in the tangle of simultaneous but conflicting sensations. We are both alarmed by its bizarre and monstrous others, and we recognise these; we are repelled from its violent grotesqueries, and find ourselves irresistibly drawn to them. All of this means that we cannot easily extricate ourselves from the Gothic text; we must live with it, continue to negotiate it in a way that might be described in terms of the possession to which Wishart makes reference. When Cave presents us with Lucifer wandering in sterile Swiss laboratories, when he litters Brighton beach with the man-eating creatures of myth, or remarks on the flame-trees visible from the patio of his (real) home, he both draws on Gothic’s characteristic unravelling of familiar-foreign oppositions, and he potentiates an encounter with Duende. His Gothicism is a bid to ensnare listeners in song, to instantiate in them the uneasy complex of sensations registered in the pieces that make up Push the Sky Away, and to render them momentarily inseparable from – immersed in – the distorted other-world of his creative imagination.

Reference List

Cave, N. (2013) ‘The Secret Life of the Lovesong’, in The Complete Lyrics of Nick Cave, 1978- 2013, London: Penguin, pp. 1-20.

Wishart, S. (2013), ‘Nick Cave: The Spirit of the Duende and the Sound of the Rent Heart’ in The Art of Nick Cave, J.H. Baker, (ed.), Bristol: Intellect, pp. 203-216.

Botting, F. (1995), Gothic, London: Routledge

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