The very anticipation of Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds on stage in itself resembles some kind of a sacred ritual; the distant sounds of Skeleton Tree spreading in the background like myrrh while the massive crowds of the O2 are shuffling in hushed murmurs. It’s a semi-sacred experience, full of pathos, solemnity, and a mixture of fear and thrill that’s suspended in time.
When he finally walks out to join the band, the crowd is rapturous. Here he is, the demigod in a dapper suit and shiny shoes, with a necklace dangling against his bare chest; it’s him, it’s Nick Cave.
He doesn’t waste any time, plunging straight into the first few rows as they adoringly stretch their hands out to him, hungry for the smallest brush with his morose genius. He touches hand after hand, forehead after forehead like a shaman in the middle of a séance. “Can you feel my heart beat; boom, boom, boom”, he whispers into the microphone during ‘Higgs Boson Blues’ as the audience touches his chest, listening out. Can we actually hear it? We’re about to find out.
It’s always amazing to observe how music affects people in a live performance. In The Bad Seeds’ case, it covers a whole spectrum of intensely unrestrained emotions wherever you turn your head in the auditorium; from voraciously physical couples to lonely souls holding in muffled sobs, via those falling in and out of unbridled, paroxysmal dance trances. Each of them shares a personal story with Nick Cave and each goes through a kind of cathartic experience induced by the music, whether it’s triggered by fond memories, personal revelations, or the nostalgia of youth.
Looking at Cave on the stage, it’s hard to tell if he’s sharing this experience with the rest of us, as he keeps shifting between two very distinct performance modes. On one hand, he prances around the stage in his signature jerky manner, delivering some seriously good fan service with cult hits like ‘The Weeping Song’ or ‘Stagger Lee’. On the other, material drawn from Skeleton Tree is unsettling to watch. It’s melancholic and moving, his voice graver and more emotional than ever – everything we love about Bad Seeds, right?
Yet there’s also the weird sensation that the man is exhausted. He’s tired and vulnerable, and there’s a strange anxious frenzy underpinning his performance. It feels like a relinquishment of the control and swaggering assurance that’s always been so integral to Cave’s don’t-give-a-damn, cool-guy image. It’s reflected in the songs from Skeleton Tree that he performs – they’re a lot less polished, more fluid, and unconcerned about structure or likability than ever before, like the crushing ‘I Need You’, in which Cave mournfully chants “Nothing really matters” through and through. It’s the voice of a man who’s defeated, emotionally pulverized, singing from the bottom of his weathered heart. The fact that his 15-year-old son died tragically during the making of the album only intensifies the notion, but then again you can’t define the atmosphere of an entire performance based on one personal event in the artist’s life.
It’s clear to see that Cave struggles (or doesn’t try?) to make a connection with the audience farther than the first few rows. His gaze doesn’t drift beyond them, towards the vast sea of thousands and thousands of people singing along to his songs. And even though every single viewer squinting in the last row will most definitely feel every little tremor of his gravelly voice, it doesn’t seem like he’s aware of it himself.
“I really don’t know what else to say – there are too many of you”, he states at the end of a song, having thanked the crowd. That’s true. The O2 is one big building to fill, even when you’re a preacher of Nick Cave’s calibre. The size is disproportionate to the kind of spooky, chamber intimacy that The Bad Seeds are known for; it’s a mixture of awe and terror that can only be experienced between the artist and the closest onlookers – a mutual feeding off each other’s energy via touch, eye contact, and music.
But the doom, gloom, and spatial disharmony are diluted every once in a while, especially with the band’s older, iconic hits such as a wonderfully stripped down version of ‘Into My Arms’, the explosive pyrotechnic-like power and pizzazz of ‘Red Right Hand’ (that includes a mocking stab at Donald Trump “and his little tweets”), and a wistful and sexy ‘Jubilee Street’, dedicated to “his wife, the fox”. There are the transient moments where we get to catch a glimpse of the old Cave.
Not that the new Cave isn’t every bit as brilliant and unique. It’s just a scarier version in the sense that it reflects the current internal state for many of us – the aching intangibility, grotesque reality, unfairness, and helplessness against the absurdity of life. The world is a dark, dark place and if Cave himself doesn’t know where we’re headed, who does?