On Marianne Faithfull’s 2014 album Give My Love to London there is a quiet, heartbreaking keepsake: “Deep Water” – a tormented plea to bridge the desperate gorge of longing, written for Faithfull by musician Nick Cave and his twin sons, Arthur and Earl. It’s the song that closes One More Time With Feeling, a new film that documents the recording of Cave’s 16th studio album with his band the Bad Seeds, and the grief that’s enshrouded his family since Arthur died, tragically, at age 15. (The twins’ mother is model and fashion designer Susie Bick, to whom Cave has been married since 1999.)
The version of the song that accompanies the film’s final moments is sung by the Cave boys – a sweet silhouette of a time not long ago when things were fine for a family that would be disrupted by Arthur’s fall from a cliff in Brighton, England, in July, 2015. One can’t help but recall the concluding scene of 20,000 Days on Earth, the 2014 film that dramatized a day in the life of Cave and his band as they recorded Push the Sky Away. That film, too, comes to an end with three Cave men together, slightly younger, laughing and eating pizza on the couch.
Directed by Andrew Dominik, One More Time With Feeling premiered at the Venice International Film Festival this week and screened simultaneously around the world the night before Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ new album Skeleton Tree was released.
In one scene, seated at the piano to record an overdub, Cave, an expert pianist of decades, fiddles with the keys, stumbles and finally announces, baffled and a little embarrassed, that he doesn’t know the chords. “It seems weird to work out the chords to an improvised song,” he says. At the risk of making too convenient a writerly leap, also harrowing and unnatural seems the act of working trauma into a tellable form so that a film’s audience may understand it more currently and clearly than the family at its core. Certainly this process was not endeavoured enthusiastically by the Cave family or Cave’s longtime friend and bandmate, Warren Ellis, who rises to the task of being Cave’s closest confidante. (“What would I do without Warren?” asks Cave.)
Cave gave no interviews in advance of the album or film, and so the film serves as a voucher back into the world outside his grief. Throughout, Cave bemoans the tediousness of having to repeat takes and talk about a tragedy so devastating and still relatively new. One More Time With Feeling was Cave’s way of skipping the press cycle and avoiding the risk of some tactless journalist asking, in a 15-minute phone interview, “So would you say the death of your son influenced you creatively?” This does get answered, but on Cave’s terms. (Cave’s agreement with Dominik was that Dominik could film everything, but he and Bick would have final approval.) “When a trauma happens that’s that big, there’s no imaginative room around it,” Cave says. “… It’s affected me in a way that I don’t understand.”
Cave is a man whose long career was built on sorrow, pain, impenetrable cantankerousness – never disingenuous, but vividly emotional, a frenzied, feral punk who grew up and eventually learned how to be more civilized and charismatic about the unsavoury parts of existence. But what does grief do when one’s entire persona has been misery? What does it look like when a man of this sort experiences sadness beyond cure?
In a word, exhaustion. In One More Time With Feeling, this king of limitless bravado and unrepenting nerve stutters over words and speaks candidly, though never too specifically, about being shaken, doubting not just himself but the idea of good in the world, and about having lost the ability to understand life in a comprehensive, linear form. “I think I’m losing my voice,” he says. “Just file it under lost things. My voice, my iPhone, my judgment, my memory… Isn’t it the invisible things that have so much mass?” He explains that he no longer believes in narratives, and that this is why the lyrics on Skeleton Tree are more discombobulated than typical Bad Seeds songs. He explains, also, that under normal circumstances the album would have been finessed until faultlessness, but that the band let it go to release unpolished. “There’s something about the naked nature of the songs that have Arthur all through,” says Cave. “… Every time I try to articulate it, it just does him a disservice.”
The most emotionally extreme songs Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds have ever made, whether about lovesickness, fury, mania, joy or withdrawal, are propelled by an alarming deliberateness, fierce as though they are possessed.
Skeleton Tree, beautiful as it is, is a listenable preservation of meandering pain. It is the least theatrical, and most excruciating, of all Cave’s work. It sounds the most helpless. It sounds the most drained. Perhaps it was the most necessary. (Skeleton Tree was under way before Arthur died, returned to in the autumn of 2015, and mastered early this year.) It is good in the way a good funeral is good. It is a rite of moving onward.
Though fleeting, there is laughter in the film. When Bick enters the studio wearing a fur coat, Cave throws up his hands, saying “get rid of it,” half-seriously thwarting outcry from imagined animal-rights activists. He coyly asks Ellis how his hair looks. Earl, Arthur’s twin brother, playfully teases his dad with wit inherited directly from him. But these moments of emotional neutrality, when the heart is free and light, reasonably, do not last. This is a heavy and nightmarish grief. It is shattering to behold. Cave says that time now feels elastic, that he is attached to Arthur’s death like a rubber band – he can stretch away for a moment, but will always be snapped back.
“There is more paradise in hell than we’ve been told,” says Cave, ever-hovering some place between optimism and despair. “… The world plunges on.”Report Typo/Error
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