Nick Cave is an Australian singer, songwriter, poet and author who dives into the multifaceted abyss of human consciousness. In his works, and especially song lyrics, he frequently makes use of themes such as mortality, morbidity and surrealism. All of these are motives we are familiar with from the genre of Gothic. But how exactly are these themes realized in Cave’s art and can they be categorized as belonging to the subgenre of Australian Gothic?
To answer these questions let’s first take a look at some examples of Gothic themes in Cave’s songs. In the album Murder Ballads, published in 1996 by his band Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, themes of horror can be found frequently. As the title suggests, almost every song includes the story of at least one and sometimes several murders. “The Curse of Millhaven”, for example, tells the story of a mad young girl comitting several murders. In “Song of Joy”, a father recounts the brutal murder of his family by a serial killer. Both songs feature detailed, very morbid descriptions of the murders. Interesting to note is that both these songs are written from the perspective of the murderer. Both depict their spiral into madness.
This theme of madness and violence developing from a place of love can be found in several other songs as well. The general feeling of many of these songs could also be described as a depiction of the ordinary and unknown in an unusual, surrealistic way. Cave presents horror and violence from the hands of ordinary people like a school girl, father or lover.
To answer the question whether Nick Cave’s art can be classified as Australian Gothic we must first take a closer look at the characteristics of this subgenre. In general, it shares some aspects with European and American Gothic but also has its own distinct features. Early examples of Australian Gothic can be dated back as far as the late 19th century but are quite obscure. The genre developed alongside colonization and is therefore marked by racist ideas. Indigenous Australian people are portrayed as uncivilized in contrast to the civilized, rational colonizer. Another feature is the perception of the landscape as hostile, dangerous and haunted.
One song which we would like to inspect closer is “Where the Wild Roses Grow”. Cave recorded this song together with fellow Australian artist Kylie Minogue in 1995. The duet narrates the story of Elisa Day and her unnamed murderer who is also her lover. At the height of their relationship, he promises to show her the place “where the wild roses grow”. This place is depicted as a beautiful, mysterious place of desire only he seems to know of. It is here at this almost otherworldly place of natural beauty where he strikes her down with a rock.
Contrary to most Australian gothic fiction, the environment here isn’t potentially harmful or even dangerous. Instead it is depicted as a beautiful escape. Nonetheless, the surroundings are abstract and surreal, almost too perfect and quickly stained by the brutal murder of Elisa Day. It appears as if Nick Cave subverts the expectations of the genre, by turning the innocent and beautiful landscape into a murder scene, instead of the land itself bearing the horrors and danger. This idea of subverting the Australian Gothic can also be found in the way evilness is depicted. There is no strange “other” who poses a threat. Instead evilness and violence can be found within the community from people you would never expect to be capable of such things. The kind of horror Cave uses is psychological, often allowing the listener to get an insight into the murderers thoughts by having the songs be written from their perspective.