Following the breakup of his feral punk band The Birthday Party, Nick Cave embarked on a brief tour with a skeleton backing band, whom he dubbed Man or Myth? While he would eventually give his backing band a moniker that far better suits their southern gothic sound and image, The Bad Seeds, the question that their original name posed seems to permeate his career.
It could very well be an apt alternative title for a new film of which he is subject, 20,000 Days on Earth. Following Cave throughout his 20,000th day, a day spent writing (outside of music Cave is a prolific author, having written a number of books and screenplays), jamming with the Bad Seeds, spending time with his family, attending therapy and catching up with former lovers and band mates, it’s a surreal blend of fact and fiction. It’s made very clear that this is an artificial “day”, and indeed the film is scripted (partly by Cave himself nonetheless, along with directors Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard ) yet all the major players that appear in the film are incredibly frank in their discussions, to a point where it either has to be real conversations between friends or astoundingly good acting.
However despite the candour of their conversations, topics of which range from sex to the source of artistic inspiration, Cave himself remains quite a shrouded figure by the end of the (too short) film. Be it as the post apocalyptic Iggy Pop that howled and thrashed in the Birthday party or as the Faulkneresque preacher-meets-Sinatra that croons in the Bad Seeds, Cave has always appeared as a “character” throughout his career.
Though 20,000 Days hints at times that somebody else exists behind them, the message that the viewer is left with at the end of the film is that these personas are all encompassing. In short, Cave is able to reveal a lot about himself, whilst still preserving his own mythology. This doesn’t really happen anymore.
Largely because the internet and things like MTV, the world has become a lot more transparent, and largely because of this, the new cool is being normal. Artists aim to appear, it seems, as though they wandered onstage (and in some cases, a career), by mistake. While in some ways knowing the artists back story helps us to appreciate their work more, the flipside is that it can act as an excuse for bad music.
Alt-J, for example, uses the excuse that they lived in student halls for having a boring debut album. Take away all the press and behind the scene knowledge, and all that we have to know about a musician is the music and performance. Miley Cyrus (who Cave name checks on his most recent record), is able to get a lot of attention for her provocative performances, and she’s built up a very over the top image without actually revealing much about herself. Lana Del Rey plays this game as well, though in a far more subtle manner.
Ultimately the less we know about somebody, the less we hear about their private lives or what inspires them, the more we have to focus on the music, which makes it far more intriguing. This makes for a far more interesting listening experience.
by Adam Duke