In typically late fashion, Nick Triani and Astrid Swan get around to reviewing 20,000 Days On Earth, just in time to co-incide with the release of a new Nick Cave documentary and album.
It’s the way we swing around here. Yes, Nick Cave has a new documentary (One More Time With Feeling) to go with his new album (Skeleton Tree) – yet we’re just catching up with the last one. In an opportune move, Netflix have just distributed Cave’s previous album related documentary 20,000 Days On Earth, no doubt to cash-in on the new movie/album advance word. 20,000 Days On Earth of course finds Nick in sunnier climes, this day-in-the-life portrait of the Australian singer is fairly easy going. But because of what we know has happened since, it’s tinged with a sense of foreboding. Especially so in the scene where Cave sits on the sofa with his kids watching TV (one of the most revealing scenes of the documentary), munching on Pizza – looking not only proud but genuinely happy. I don’t mind admitting, this was a heartbreaker for me.
This starts with Cave waking up, driving around in his car in hometown Brighton, sometimes with guests, Ray Winstone (very funny) and Kylie Minogue. He visits his therapist and talks about his father and visits his archive curators, piecing together remnants of his life via cuttings, photos and videos. There’s also a lot of Cave in the studio with The Bad Seeds, working on the Push The Sky Away album. The film emphasises Warren Ellis‘ role in the Nick Cave creative universe. Ellis is not only Nick’s confidant, but his musical crutch and mentor. We’d all want Warren Ellis on our side. Cave opens up a lot about his writing process (both musical and literal) and he manages to avoid the usual cliches that artists normally pander to. The documentary affords us Cave’s view of himself as a singer/performer and the certain amount of role playing this entails. It’s an astute awareness of Cave’s own relationship to his art. Meanwhile, Cave’s wife, Susie Bick, remains elusive, a mostly offscreen presence – Cave giving us enough notice that she’s turned his life around for the better.
The documentary affords us Cave’s view of himself as a singer/performer and the certain amount of role playing this entails. It’s an astute awareness of Cave’s own relationship to his art.
20,000 Days On Earth has a brief sojourn to Cave’s time as leader of The Birthday Party. I was fortunate enough to catch the band once, and it still remains a live highlight. The gig was violent and disturbing, but energy fuelled. Cave, like a broken doll, repeatedly falling on us, the audience gathered at the front of stage. To the right of us, a large man in a kimono was eating oranges and then breathing fire towards the stage (really). Whenever Cave fell into the mosh pit, the kimono figure would part the crowd, fetch Cave and prop him back onto the stage. It was an incredibly wild and surreal show. Not long after, at some point in the mid 1980’s, I was recording at a studio in London, adjacent to Cave’s then label, Mute. You had to go through Mute’s entrance to get to the studio. Walking through the reception area one morning, this door flew open at the top of a staircase, Cave stood there, looking pretty unstable. He fell down the stairs, a sack of black cloth, big boots and wild hair, flailing as he went. He gathered himself, sat in a chair and no one said anything. He was wasted. 20,000 Days On Earth reveals the older, sober spirit to those times, no less interesting, equally intense. Cave charms us with his open candour, 20,000 Days On Earth is worth your time.
Nick Cave and his band manage to teeter from album to album and film to film somewhere between being an artist and a superstar, fictive and revelatory, mainstream but alternative. Watching 20,000 Days On Earth convinces me that this guy really knows how to get the best of both worlds. Cave’s artistic position appears ideal – he has the means to spend forever in the studio, make high art, expensive films to market his newest albums and generally pick his positions. My initial feelings watching this movie from 2014 are jealousy and the sense that the romantic male artist myth lives and breaths with this one.
But Cave is charming and disarming. Even without the knowledge that the follow-up movie and album partially address the loss of his son last year, I am sold pretty quickly. Nick Cave knows how to peel himself like a fictive onion layer by layer. He knows that to give yourself openly only creates a mystery, the wonder of who we really are. Then there is the matter of all the funny guest appearances and the impressive loving presence of Warren Ellis. His stories and his behaviour around Cave in the studio are delightful things. The connection between Ellis and Cave is the best stuff of musical relationships. There must be a special and unique kind of love called musical love that only happens between people who connect through making music. It is addictive, special and rarely have I seen anyone depict it as well as 20,000 Days On Earth. And it’s not a sexual connection, yet I’m sure it has been often mistaken for that physical desire.
Nick Cave knows how to peel himself like a fictive onion layer by layer. He knows that to give yourself openly only creates a mystery, the wonder of who we really are.
Nick Cave is incredibly lucky to be able to do what he does. If he was starting out right now, I doubt he’d ever get into the superstar-artist position he occupies now. Maybe he’d become a bitter musician who has to work in a library, or maybe he’d be selling something in an ad agency and wrecking hell in the studio at night. But Cave has inherited mantels and lapels off of coats that now hang in museums. He carries dust on his shoulders. I am baffled by his incessant references to Christian religious figures, a little bored by his sex and drugs and rock’n’roll references and filled with curiosity to see where he is still moving towards. Because even though he has achieved enough, I can see that Cave’s artistic ambition shines through him still. And it keeps things moving, it keeps everyone on their toes. Then life unfolds.