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12th March 2024

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ ‘Wild God’: ‘a song of planetary importance’

Christopher Jackson

It used to seem to me that rock and roll was a young man’s game, possessing within it the iron law of inevitable decline. It went like this. After the euphoria of one’s ‘breakthrough’ there would be a period of ‘maturity’, usually conducted in one’s late 20s (a point in life when nobody can really be said to be mature). Around this point, various complications would arise as part of the rock star’s grim pact with the genre: drugs, band break-ups, and, in many instances, death. But as all this unravelling occurred, the fan could at least look back on that sunny time before the alcohol had really kicked in and listen to the first fine careless rapture of the early hits.

This does, of course, happen – but it is a lie to say it has to happen. In fact, the only reason it occurs so often is because the conventions of the industry lead to self-destruction, and because fame puts the famous person in a false relation to other people, and therefore to the universe in general. Not many musicians, asleep as to the impact of all this harm, are able to go against the herd and dilute their ego sufficiently to lead a normal, productive life.

A rock star is therefore a curious and often unhappy specimen. On the one hand they are full of marvellous inspiration, walking around in privileged access to the fine substances of music. At the same time, their lives can seem predictable, rote, and mechanistic. Though they can do something which millions would love to be able to do, and have an infinite art potentially before them to explore, they are more likely than a whole range of other people – plumbers, lawyers, accountants and so forth – to self-destruct in completely appalling ways.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Fortunately, several examples run in the opposite direction, and so it turns out that rock stars don’t have to die young, or decline. They can grow, mature, alter and reach enlightenment.

So how might that happen? The first important hurdle is not to die young and if that is achieved, then it also helps if one’s initial period of great fame subsides a little. In the marvellous cases of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, longevity eventually created the conditions for a productive old age. It is good when stadiums cede to arenas, and the rock star’s sense of proportion will be improved by the arrival on the planet of billions of people who have little inkling of their former importance.

The rock star with ambitions to be fruitful beyond their fifties will also be helped by mortality, that universal corrective to pride. In the case of Dylan and Cohen, the presence of death directed them away from their celebrity back towards themselves – into that deeper sense of fragile life where art comes from. The results were astonishing: ‘Murder Most Foul’, “You Want it Darker”, “Mississippi”, “Samson in New Orleans”, “Standing in the Doorway”, to name only a few. In each of these songs, and in many others, we can feel the necessity of the creative process: the impression is of music as an expression of an entirely healthy approach to life.

Nick Cave has followed a similar progression to these masters, but with the release of his new song ‘Wild Gods’ it even seems to me that he is surpassing them, entering some new circle of higher life all his own.

For those who don’t know his work, Cave and his band the Bad Seeds have been around since 1983, and for many years produced intelligent albums with a post-punk sound. Right from the beginning, Cave was different to his peers. He has always admitted religious imagery to his work: ancient wisdom has long since coursed through his lyrics, meaning that the vying sounds of the contemporary city – drums and electric guitars – were always juxtaposed with an intellectual inheritance of sacred books stretching back thousands of years. It is not too much to say that two kinds of time have always inhabited his work: the urgency of the present moment rushing over, or contending with, the permanence of ancient thought.

Even before his recent run of magnificent albums, his work was hugely valuable. He has always been one of a small number of songwriters who bestows immense care on his language, and who understands that songwriting is a symbiotic form whereby what is said must be profoundly intertwined with musical texture to form a viable unity.

Cave’s fame arrived in a less intrusive fashion than Dylan’s, and maybe than Cohen’s, but a drug problem arose in the form of heroin addiction nonetheless. Fortunately the rehab which Amy Winehouse said she would never attend was attended by Cave and he has for some time been ‘clean’. All this will seem relatively predictable so far.

But the usual and expected arc towards septuagenarian mellowness was in this case bucked by a terrible and unthinkable event: the death of his 15-year-old son Arthur on 15th July 2015 after a fatal fall off a cliff in Brighton.

It is not surprising to find that Cave was altered irrevocably by this appalling event, as would be the case with anyone. The astonishing thing is the direction in which it altered him, and the authenticity with which he communicated his pain – and, crucially, all that he had learned from his pain. He has given bulletins from his zone of suffering via every avenue available to him: in songs of ever-increasing beauty and glory; in his online community The Red Hand Files, a project of enormous spiritual generosity; in ceramics; and in his peerless book Faith, Hope and Carnage (2022), which takes the form of a series of conversations with the journalist Sean O’Hagan.

Cave’s news is not what one might have expected: not only has Arthur’s death not been all bad, sometimes it has been the cause of immense blessings which he wouldn’t want to be without.

The aftermath of Arthur’s death is described in hallucinatory detail in Faith, Hope and Carnage, and it would be a hard-hearted person who could read of what happened without feeling all at once a love and sympathy for Cave and his wife Susie. In time, Cave would keep going as an artist. Some of Skeleton Tree (2016) was retrospectively rewritten to take into account the loss of Arthur, but most of the album had been written beforehand. His first full foray into post-grief creativity came with Ghosteen (2019), which was followed by Carnage (2021), which is not a Bad Seeds album, since it is the work solely of Cave and Bad Seeds member Warren Ellis, a very important person in Cave’s life.

It is possible now at a certain distance of time from Arthur’s death to allow oneself to feel that Cave was well-placed to make some good out of a situation which would have been a purely negative experience in those who lack his spiritual and musical resources. This is the man who said in ‘Mercy Seat’ (1988) that he wasn’t afraid to die, and who vaguely entertained the idea of an interventionist God in 2011’s ‘Into My Arms’. The words which open that song – probably still his most popular – look now as if they were written epochs ago, out of a provisional soul:

I don’t believe in an interventionist God

but I know darling that you do.

What is important in these lines is the sense that the connection with the lover is so strong that her faith has to impact on him, and be shared in some way. Cave has distanced himself from this song, the main reason being that he now does believe in an interventionist God. Arthur’s death either introduced something new into the equation, or else it accelerated a process which was already under way in him. For Cave, as is the case for many of his contemporaries, the Bible has never been a book to be roundly mocked or cheerfully ignored: it has always been a vital part of his toolkit as a songwriter, conferring also a set of obligations on him as a man. But it is one thing to play with religious imagery, and quite another to believe that the imagery may stand for a truer reality than the one we generally appear to inhabit.

Why did Arthur’s death make Nick Cave reassess his attitude to religion? Surely there could be no clearer exhibition of the futility and randomness of life than this poor boy’s accidental end? Curiously, the exact opposite proved to be the case. What seems to have happened is that Arthur’s death over time simply did not present itself to Cave as conclusively bad news: in fact, it told a completely different story.  After the terrible months which followed Arthur’s departure, the Caves became aware of Arthur as a living presence within their lives. Arthur seemed – and many grieving people find the same about their loved ones – an acutely living force. Some will simply call him mistaken in this, but the art testifies, as we shall see, to the vivid nature of this experience. If we listen to these albums, we will see why these suspicions and experiences sent Cave back towards the eternal questions in a wholly altered state.

The profound pain of Arthur’s death triggered a mysterious metamorphosis which somehow made it impossible for Cave to sing those lines from ‘Into My Arms’. They simply weren’t true for him anymore. One way to look at life is that if we really pay attention, it has a way of continually disabusing us of pessimism: it seems too solicitous of our attention for that. We are too free, too blessed, too tangible, and just too hopeful to feel futile or accidental. The Cave family soon found that life has a curious way of offering up peace. True, it very often does this in the most peculiar ways – in half-seen fragments, in whispered rumours, and in fleeting correspondences. But it seems it does do this, and it certainly did so for the Caves.

When the death of a loved one happens, our capacity for paying attention ramps up. It is perhaps rather like the experience of watching a crunch moment in a tennis match, when, knowing what’s at stake, we receive a heightened awareness of where the ball is landing in relation to the line and what strategies are really being attempted by both players. We know a crisis is nearing for one player, and a triumph for the other, and this focuses our attention. In our actual lives, grief cajoles out of us a new level of interest in things, because pain is such a jolting thing and we really want to know why it happened, and we really want it to go away.

This has to be utterly crushing in the first instance; we are face-to-face with certain facts about the universe which we are completely out of tune with in the seeming comfort of our modernity. To be blindsided by our lack of belief in immortality would be shock enough in itself. But there is a parallel shock which has nothing to do with the physical facts of death: it is the sudden realisation that we have been living in misshapen ways. In Cave’s case this process would lead to the absolute transformation of his art. ‘Wild God’ again makes it clear that this process is of enormous creative value. It is not too much to say that in Cave the redemptive possibilities of art have now taken on stupendous proportions, giving the listener access to a world of delight amounting to revelation. As we shall see, this song has such power within it that it can instantly render us taller, and far more likely to be equal to our own situation, whatever circumstances we might find ourselves in.

Of course, it is quite clear that the previous albums Ghosteen and Carnage are the products of the same mind and heart as the person who wrote, say, The Boatman’s Call (1997) on which album ‘Into My Arms’ appears; there is a thread of personality running through all these songs. But in truth the similarities now feel superficial: the ruction of 2015 was great and that made the subsequent flowering so extraordinary as to make one feel that Cave is now a quite different person altogether. Dante called this ‘la vita nuova’ – the new life. It is this altered state which Cave has been giving expression to over the past four or five years.

Ghosteen was the first part of a process of reconciliation to the grief-world which Cave was so suddenly thrust into. That album may be understood as a form of waking up – of coming into fuller consciousness. To listen to these songs, which have the flavour of something completely fresh and new, is like seeing the most lovely field of flowers growing out of terrain which one had thought utterly scorched and given over to hopelessness. Soon the flowers grow in such abundance that one cannot seriously entertain a set of circumstances where the original devastation didn’t happen. In this instance, what happened to Arthur came to seem necessary. Its essential purpose would remain hidden (though it seems unlikely that any such purpose must include Cave’s new songs) but he was now not in doubt that Arthur’s death was asking to be understood as some form of gift – counterintuitive as that might seem.

What has followed has been a journey with numerous staging-posts, and it would require a more detailed study than this to do justice to that journey. But Cave has given us the myth-making of ‘Spinning Song’ and the magnificent yearning of ‘Waiting for You’. He has found Arthur speaking through him in ‘Ghosteen Speaks’ assuring the mourning father of his substantiality and his generous proximity: “Look for me/I am beside you.”

By the time of ‘Wild God’ this yearning feels as though it has in some way subsided to be replaced by an absolute joy at what each moment of life can offer. It is important to remember that this later development has also been caused by the beautiful figure of Arthur and surely continues to contain him: I am sure Cave shall never write another note of music which isn’t in some way a message to Arthur (or a message from him), and which doesn’t also relate to his other dead son Jethro who he tragically lost in 2022.

2024 finds Cave sufficiently strong in himself to bring in a vast system of myth and thought, which is of overwhelming truth and beauty, and goes beyond his previous work. This is not in any way to denigrate those beautiful previous albums: it was all a natural process and Cave has given us a profound testament to that process – a sort of map of the grieving and hopeful heart.

Suspicions have been crystallising in Cave these past years. In ‘Hand of God’, the opening song on Carnage, we feel as in no music I can think of since Bach, the astonishing otherness and strangeness of religious experience – the way it can arch down on you, pinning you to itself and refusing to let you go. This sense of being tied to an experience which turns out to be good for you beyond your wildest imaginings pervades that album. It all leads to the tremendous revelation in ‘Balcony Man’ that ‘this morning is beautiful and so are you’. What we have here is the successful arrival of the outside-inside life where the external beauty of the world is married to the inner joy of love and the world returns to a state of order which must have seemed absolutely impossible in the aftermath of Arthur’s death.

And so to ‘Wild God’. I hope the reader will forgive a small personal anecdote in order for me to illustrate its potential power. I put this song on iTunes in my car, just before the daily struggle of getting my children’s seat belts on. This meant that in the grapple for order, the song almost entirely passed me by, and yet once it had played out, and the children were safely strapped in, I found myself pausing in complete surprise once the song was finished, open-mouthed. I was suddenly aware that the music had rushed in to alter me entirely even though I thought I hadn’t been paying attention. This song has enormous capacity potential to change us in ways we do not yet know.

It begins with a shadow of itself – like a radio trying to tune up. It is as if the song begins with a floating representation of its own birth. We are then ushered into the territory of fairytale, told in Cave’s crooning tones, one of his abiding strengths, and which will always be a form of loving homage to Elvis Presley:

Once upon a time a wild god zoomed

All through his memory in which he was entombed

It was rape and pillage in the retirement village

But in his mind he was a man of great virtue and courage


These confident stanzas open up onto the many ways in which we make ourselves inadequate vessels or receptacles for the true energy of life. Our own wild search for truth might land on the wrong things leading to a completely false image of ourselves: we think our happiness is to be found in power over others, in money, or in sexual conquest. When we live by these precepts, the divine – or ‘the wild god’ – has nothing to attach itself to. In this song, not only do we feel that as a lack but the ‘wild god’ does too.

This state of affairs, where there is no reciprocity between human beings and the forces which created them, will in turn lead to the rule of ego, and all the typical tropes of unhappy humanity: a world of ‘rape and pillage’ and in the next stanza ‘a dying city’. The evidence for this state of affairs is so wide-ranging as to feel dominant nearly all of the time. Put simply, no polity on earth bears very close inspection precisely because of this constant misfiring in human beings.

But the wild god doesn’t give up its search. In this song, it never once relents in its desire to find people with whom its energies can fuse in order for the world to fulfil its purpose. For ourselves, our own search is almost wholly blind and usually presents as chronic dissatisfaction and frustration at the incomplete state of things. Luckily, our own quest also has its own inviolable energy: all of us walk around knowing deep down that we can do much better with ourselves and wanting that to be so. Yet we are inadequate to the task of making ourselves suitable: and so as a general rule, nothing very interesting happens to people. We are asleep, and so we can’t fuse with the wild god. This dismays the wild god, who, according to Cave, is constant in his own desire for a better world:

So he flew to the top of the world and looked around

And said where are my people to bring your spirit down?

The wild god then is a sort of stray divinity in search of activation. But in our current condition – perhaps the same condition Cave was in before Arthur’s death – we’re no good to him, and so nothing ever detonates. Instead we’re mechanistic and caught up in rote aspects of life, making a mess even of our blessings – or as Cave says in the second verse, ‘making love with a kind of efficient gloom.’ In other words, we are perpetually committing a complete inversion of our purpose: we ought to be efficiently grateful, kind, loving and honest. Instead, we use our capacities for the wrong ends: to be gloomy, sullen, acquisitive, angry, ungrateful and many other regrettable things.

And yet according to this song, we know deep down that we’re getting it wrong, that somehow we’re in a dense confusion. We might be caught up in the most heinous disaster and we might not know how to get out of it but most of us keep getting up in the morning, refusing to give up. Funnily enough, the way out into clarity and truth turns out to be simple:

And the people on the ground cried when does it start?

And the wild god says it starts with the heart, with the heart, with the heart

This is very beautiful and true: the repetition of the word ‘heart’ reminds us of the need for discipline and the virtue of repetition when it comes to improving our relationship with life. The Desert Fathers, for instance, used to repeat the same short prayer: “O God, do not leave me. I have done nothing good in your sight, but according to your goodness, let me now make a beginning of good.” I think Cave is saying that you can say this and not mean it and it won’t get you very far at all. But if you say these things ‘with a heart’ astonishing things can happen.

This is a definite first step: the realisation that our goal is in front of us and, in fact, not intellectually complicated at all: there’s no need to turn over half a library to find it. In fact, such a plan would almost certainly make matters worse given the sort of books which are usually found in libraries nowadays. Instead, what’s required is to find the affections behind things and to unite ourselves with them in a completely reciprocal spirit. But this work, though it isn’t hard as to the mind, is very hard as to the will, and accordingly cannot be undertaken in the course of a spa weekend. It is endless and you have to enter into it for the long haul. What Cave is proclaiming here is the difficult nature of correcting wrong life – as I take it he has been doing – and introducing instead better patterns of behaviour:

And the people on the ground cried when does it end?

The wild god says well it depends, but mostly never ends

 ‘Cause I’m a wild god flying and a wild god swimming

And an old sick god dying and crying and singing

Bring your spirit down

At this point – Bring your spirit down – the choir joins in, and the song is completely transformed – and if you’re listening with attention, your world will be too. What has happened in the realm of this song is that there has been an infinitely delightful fusion between the wild god and the individual, whether it be us or Cave. It is similar to the famous picture by Michelangelo on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, where Adam and God’s fingers touch, bequeathing a sort of Big Bang energy, mirroring the start of life itself. This instead is the creation of a new self.

It was Emmanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) who argued that as you get more remote from the source of creation, a sort of density arises and that it is our duty to cut through all that fog and activate our innermost being in harmony with causational love. At the same time, we might reach a lasting understanding that love is the organising principle behind life, the basis on which things exist at all.

By this interpretation, human beings are unique because they can give back testimony of lower realms – in this song, the realms of ‘rape and pillage’. If we do this then we show ourselves to be integral to the universe since we are launching a crucial process of reconciliation which augments the overall level of love. Whether or not this is actually going on in life or not, each reader will have to decide for themselves, but something of that nature is happening in this song: from this point on, everything awakens into the most marvellous consciousness. It is not too much to say that the whole world wakes up.

It was the 20th century Armenian philosopher and mystic G.I Gurdjeff who once observed that if 200 people were to wake up then there would be no more war. This song shows you what can happen if one person does – but I hope its implications will be broader than that and cause a chain reaction in many people who will feel immediately that a song of this power has to have some true foundation.

It is comprehensible why a song like this should have come into being in this way. If there is any hope for humanity at this point it might well be for people with considerable audience like Cave to undergo just such a transformation as the one we can see he has undergone. This is because only celebrities can communicate in the numbers needed to remake the world.

On the day after I first heard this song, the annual madness of the Oscars was occurring: another terrible round of backslapping whose cringeworthiness seems to increase like some graph charting doom every year. But it occurred to me that I can imagine Cave attending the Oscars (perhaps he was even invited), though I find it difficult to conceive of him enjoying the experience. Even so, he comes out of that milieu of celebrity, where huge numbers of people will listen to what he has to say.

All of which makes the last two minutes of this song potentially of planetary importance. We see how it might go if humanity really were to change and wake up, how the chain reaction might occur, and how a new understanding might move through every country and political system (the ‘flames of anarchy’ as well as the ‘sweet, sweet tears of liberty’). These astonishing moments are also a call to every listener to join Cave in this journey. What would that entail? It would entail an end to every form of dullness and unthinking life, a new form of alertness to goodness, beauty, truth and so on. This will seem so gigantic to many as to be unfeasible, but it is also true to say that if we cease to hope for something like this to happen then the likely result is extinction for the species.

Cave is casting a very wide net here. Crucially, he tells us that it might be especially your moment to join with the wild god, ‘if you’re feeling lonely and if you’re feeling blue’. Not everyone knows as Cave does what it is like to lose a child (let alone two), and so he is talking here from knowledge of the darkness. This makes the call of this song all the more authentic.

By the end of the song, Cave is wholly united with the ‘great, big, beautiful bird’ of the wild god. Everything foolish and wrong-headed has fallen away and Cave announces himself a wild god. He doesn’t do so with any arrogance or dogmatism. He has made this announcement to the world in the most superb and nuanced art imaginable. He is telling us that our predicament isn’t hopeless, and that there is a moment, which is now, when justice might suddenly swerve in, love rise up, and truth suddenly live in the corridors of power. Many people will say that none of this is likely to happen and they may be right. But such people wouldn’t have been able to imagine such a song as this, and shouldn’t have any decision-making power. In fact they don’t because they have closed themselves off to miracles, of which this song is just one of many.

In fact, what this song shows is that we all do have that opportunity to decide a new course of action. This capacity lies lodged within us, waiting for the prompt of a voice, an utterance, a sight, or a song just like this, sent to change you while you’re ineptly strapping your children into their car seats. That’s when the world can sometimes change – just when you thought you weren’t paying attention. Fortunately someone else was – and the moment you get wind of that, things start to get interesting.

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