Advent with Nick Cave

Three years ago, Nick Cave wrote, in an answer to fans’ questions on his The Red Hand Files, “[A]s Christianity retreats back into the churches and cathedrals, as all conspicuous notions of Christ fade from our culture, and Christmas becomes the sole province of a roly-poly man in a Coca-Cola red suit (whose days may also be numbered) I will visit a church this Christmas; I will kneel before the fading vestiges of an outmoded idea called spiritual transcendence and our beautiful and moving attempt to humanise the ecstatic cosmic drama, and I will pray.” At that time, in the same answer, he wrote, “Christmas to me is the remnant of an evaporating culture to which I once belonged. I am not a Christian, yet I am attached to its culture, personally, nostalgically and sentimentally.”

Bracketing that “File,” filmmaker Andrew Dominik (of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and the recent Marilyn Monroe semi-biopic Blonde) made two documentaries centered around the writing and recording of Cave’s albums. The first, One More Time With Feeling (2016; streaming on MUBI or for rent on Amazon Video), filmed the process around Skeleton Tree, but it coincided with the time just after the death of his son Arthur. The second, This Much I Know to Be True (2022; streaming on MUBI), was filmed in 2019 and 2020, around the making of the albums Ghosteen (begun just after his son’s death) and Carnage.

But in a recent interview in the Anglican-associated Church Times, Cave seems to have come back around to the church of his youth, related to his conversations with journalist Seán O’Hagan, which resulted in the book Faith, Hope and Carnage (which I’m hoping to read soon). I admit that I am not a long-time Nick Cave fan. His songs have been on the periphery of things I’ve liked (he wrote Red Right Hand, which became the theme song for Peaky Blinders, one of my favorite shows), but I’ve never owned his albums until now.

And yet, as Advent begins, there is something that floats through his recent work that fits the season. There is a longing, searching, waiting, especially on the three most recent albums covered in the documentaries, and those themes seem to have been sharpened by the deaths of his sons (another son, Jethro, died earlier this year). In “Bright Horses,” Cave articulates the human longing for things to make sense in the face of grief, and our tendency to attribute more meaning to things than they can bear: “And everyone has a heart and it’s calling for something/And we are all so sick and tired of seeing things as they are/Horses are just horses and their manes aren’t full of fire/And the fields are just fields and there ain’t no Lord/And everyone is hidden and everyone is cruel/And there is no shortage of tyrants and no shortage of fools/And the little white shape dancing at the end of the hall/Is just a wish that time can’t dissolve at all.” Even so, even though “This world is plain to see/It don’t mean we can’t believe/In something and any way/My baby’s coming back now/On the next train/I can hear the whistle blowing/I can hear the mighty roar/I can hear the horses prancing/In the pastures of the Lord.”

Advent is a season of seeing this world as it is, being sick of it, and “calling for something.” Advent is the season of the Church Calendar that fits more fully than any other into this world, not as it will be, but as it is. Because Advent has been consumed (often literally, by consumers) by the commercializing of decorations, gifts, cards, trees, and lights, even those who want to observe something like Advent are stymied by preparations for Christmas. Search for Advent music on Spotify, for example, and you will find it mostly populated with Christmas songs (and approximately 10,783 versions of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”).

But Advent is not really, in its essence, preparation for Christmas at all. Consider the Gospel readings in the Advent lectionary: repentance, John the Baptist, the appearance of Jesus in glory, His appearance in Jerusalem before His death. Finally, there is a hint of Christmas in the angel’s appearance to Mary, or Joseph, depending on the Gospel. Even the Old Testament readings, occurring prior to the birth of Jesus, are oriented toward the fulfillment of the promise that is revealed in Jesus’ Incarnation. The Proper Preface for Advent is about God’s work of repentance in us before His coming in glory. The hymns are about how He did indeed appear once in the humility of infant flesh, but more so that He will appear again in power and divine majesty. The season of Advent comes before the celebration of Jesus’ birth, but its focus is on His second coming.

We are always in a hurry to reach Christmas, and we often trample Advent in our haste. But we should not miss Advent’s message, because it brings both clarity and comfort in the midst of this world, with all its loss, grief, pain, and unfulfilled desire. And while we certainly celebrate Christmas when it comes, it also goes, and we’re left with January’s barrenness. Christmas is for a little while in this age; Advent fills the rest of the time with its longing and hope.

And here is where Nick Cave’s songs can help us. In One More Time With Feeling, the filmmakers raise the question of time, and of whether or not life is like a story. Cave talks about how his songs have grown less narrative-focused, as he prefers to fold the timelines of his songs back on themselves. Grief fractures stories, making it much more difficult to pretend that life comes out nicely with a happy ending. This points to the futility of this age and creation, where we are unable to make things come out right. And yet, Christians have a hope that it is God who will bring things right in the end.

Cave prefers to focus on the questions from within the futility, but that does not mean he refuses to point to any possible answers from the hope. In This Much I Know to Be True, he has clearly aged in the intervening years since the first documentary, but his grief and agitation have been tempered. He says that he is happy, not because he is seeking happiness, or because he identifies himself with his job, but because he is content as a person, as a husband, as a father. He says he’s come to realize that the very nature of the world is meaningful, and people are meaningful beings.

On the song “Carnage,” he says that the song is “like a rain cloud/That keeps circling overhead/Here it comes back around again.” The themes on the album Carnage circle around, and focus especially on the fact that “There are some people trying to find out who/There are some people trying to find out why/There are some people aren’t trying to find anything/But that kingdom in the sky” (“Hand of God”). It sounds like wrath and judgment in the angry spitting lyrics of “White Elephant”: “A time is coming/A time is nigh/For the kingdom in the sky/We’re all coming home/In a while.” Then, in “Lavender Fields,” in longing for those who have died before us, “We don’t ask who/We don’t ask why/There is a kingdom in the sky/There is a kingdom in the sky/We walk and walk/Across the hills/We walk and walk/Through lavender hills/We don’t ask when/We don’t ask why/There is a kingdom in the sky/There is a kingdom in the sky/Where did they go?/Where did they hide?/We don’t ask who/We don’t ask why/There is a kingdom in the sky.”

All of these variations on the “kingdom in the sky” are like the ambiguity of the coming of Christ. There is both redemption and wrath; judgment and mercy. There are some trying to find out who and why; we don’t ask who or why. “Though,” Cave says in a lecture, “the Love Song comes in many guises—songs of exultation and praise, songs of rage and of despair, erotic songs, songs of abandonment and loss—they all address God, for it is the haunted premises of longing that the true Love Song inhabits.” The haunted premises of longing are, finally and in truthfulness, the longing of Advent. Nick Cave gives us all of this and more. In “Waiting For You” from Ghosteen (one of his ambiguous love songs for the human and the Divine), he gives voice to the Church’s continual Advent cry: “A priest runs through the chapel/All the calendars are turning/A Jesus freak on the street/Says He is returning/Well, sometimes a little bit of faith/Can go a long, long way/Your soul is my anchor/I never asked to be freed/Well, sleep now, sleep now/Take as long as you need/Cause I’m just waiting for you/Waiting for you/Waiting for you/Waiting for you/Waiting for you/Waiting for you/To return/To return/To return.” The Church’s calendar has turned, and a little faith goes a long way as we wait for Him to return, to return, to return.