What a Kant! The Enlightenment Roots of Nick Cave’s The Red Hand Files

Launched in 2018 The Red Hand Files – the online companion to the  ‘Conversations with Nick Cave’ tours  – represents something of a sea change in the charismatic Australian rocker’s public persona. Commentators have noted the therapeutic tone of these events and the compassionate and collaborative way in which Cave utilises social media (1). This is some change given that Cave one admitted he wasn’t all that interested in his audience and wished that ’they’d just die!’ (2)

Born of out of Cave’s sense that there was a need to counteract the way in which social media was ‘undermining both nuance and connectivity’ and provide a platform for a more ‘thoughtful discourse’ (The Red Hand Files Issue #19 / January 2019) The Red Hand Files has given vent to  an eclectic range of topics. There is the smattering of the (perhaps rather ironic) fodder one usually gets in popstar celeb Q&A’s – “what’s your favourite joke?”; “where do you buy your shirts?”. There are the questions on song lyrics, influences and meanings, and there are heartfelt and sincere requests for advice on loss, death and love. However, ultimately The Red Hand Files reveals Cave as one of the few contemporary artists to unequivocally defend free speech and the absolute nature of unfettered artistic expression.

I would rather be remembered for writing something that was discomforting or offensive, than to be forgotten for writing something bloodless and bland

The Red Hand Files Issue # 86 /March 2020

Underpinning The Red Hand Files is a dogged refusal to submit to the censorious self-righteousness of contemporary ‘woke culture’ and the attempt to shut down artistic expression. Notable are Cave’s defence of Morrisey’s right as an artist to free expression (The Red Hand Files, Issue #48 /June 2019) , and his own refusal to cancel live shows in Israel despite growing pressure from the Boycott Divestments and Sanctions movement – calling the movements demand for a cultural boycott of Israel ‘cowardly and shameful’ (The Red Hand Files, Issue #13 / December 2018).

This apparent mellowing in Caves public (and online) persona has been accredited to the tragic death of his 15-year-old son, Arthur, in July 2015. It would be foolish to suggest that such a profoundly shattering loss has not had a deep emotional impact upon Cave, his family and close friends, however the compassionate, contemplative and intimate Cave of The Red Hand Files can be traced to the 1997 album The Boatman’s Call.

The Boatman’s Call Reconsidered

Recorded between June and August 1996 and released in March 1997, the album represented something of a departure from preceding output, in terms of its critical reception and its approach to the creative musical process. The Boatman’s Call, the bands 10th studio album and most critically acclaimed, eschewed the visceral clatter and bang that had so far defined The Bad Seeds sonic arrangements, moreover it saw Cave abandon the Old Testamentesque narratives that had so far informed his song writing.

In terms of its approach to song writing, narrative and sonic arrangement The Batman’s Call was a turning point in Cave’s career. 

The song writing is much more studied and personal in approach to theme and narrative. It is fairly well accepted that Cave’s song writing on the album is heavily influenced by the breakdown of his marriage to his first wife, Brazilian journalist Viviane Carneiro and his subsequent affair with musician PJ Harvey – a fact he acknowledges in The Red Hand Files # 57 August 2019. 

The Boatman’s Call cured me of Polly Harvey. It also changed the way I made music. The record was an artistic rupture in itself, to which I owe a great debt

The Red Hand Files Issue #57 / August 2019

This introspection was reflected in the tone of the album’s sonic makeup. Paired back, and much more restrained, the album is dominated by Caves piano and voice. The Bad Seeds are almost sonically absent – so much so that in his review Neil Spencer referred to The Boatman’s Call as ‘…Cave’s solo album’ (3)

Key members of the group were becoming increasingly estranged from the direction that Cave’s song writing, and musical arrangements were taking. In 2003 guitarist Blixa Bargeld (founder and frontman of Berlin experimentalists Einstürzende Neubauten) left The Bad Seeds – following the release of the album Nocturama. Bargeld’s innovative approach to guitar and primitive soundscapes had been a central element of the development and tone of The Bad Seeds sound since 1983. Academic Emma McCovoy has suggested that Bargeld questioned why he was even playing on The Boatman’s Call so alien and unconvincing was its musical aesthetic (4). Far more telling was the departure of Cave’s long-term collaborator Mick Harvey. Harvey – a constant in Cave’s artistic development since The Boys Next Door – took the decision to leave The Bad Seeds in 2009, following the release of Dig Lazurus Dig, thus ending a 36 year collaboration. Harvey has alluded to the role played by The Boatman’s Call in his decision to quit when Cave jettisoned the ethos of creative collaboration that had underpinned their relationship (5).

The artist that emerges out of the albums narrative tone is an increasingly individualistic, sentimental and solipsistic one having ‘substituted the myth of self for the mythmaking and myth-abusing of the band.’ ‘By muting the Bad Seeds, he [Cave] has said goodbye to music’ (6) 

The Bourgeoise Blues

Art must be wrestled from the hands of the pious, in whatever form it may come – and they are always coming, knives out, intent on murdering creativity. At this depressing time in rock ‘n’ roll though, perhaps they can serve a purpose, perhaps rock music needs to die for a while, so that something powerful and subversive and truly monumental can rise up out of it

The Red Hand Files Issue # 35 / April 2019

Biblical scholar and Caveologist Roland Boer considered The Boatman’s Call little more than a ‘half-hearted experiment’ (7). Noting the newfound respectability the album afforded Cave – situating him within the rock/pop mainstream rather than at its darker and apparently more creative margins – Boer pithily observed that the album was born over a period ‘spanning the time Cave finally gave up heroin. And the effect is deadening’ (8). The clean and mainstream Cave that emerges in the late 1990s has whole heartedly swallowed the cult of personality and the bourgeois myth of the ‘aloof’ free thinking individual. 

It is true that Cave’s artistic development post The Boatman’s Call becomes increasingly more individually centred. It is certainly the case that with the last three studio albums. With the albums Push the Sky Away (2013), and Skeleton Tree (2016)  it is possible to argue, that in the studio at least Cave becomes less reliant on  The Bad Seeds as a band (but not as a concept) as the  albums content is largely the result of the  collaboration between Cave and Warren Ellis – Cave’s principle collaborator since Mick Harvey’s departure – both in terms of song structure and arrangement. With 2019s Ghosteendouble album, the band are  dispensed with almost completely– the inside of the sleeve featuring a photo of Cave and Ellis only, the band reduced to bit parts on the albums sleeve notes.

Bourgeoise it may be, but the individuality that emerges out of and through Cave’s recent work is unswervingly Enlightenment in character. This is evident in the discussions on artistic freedom on The Red Hand Files which stem from the shifts that emerge in the creation of The Boatman’s Call – the album even has a song, ‘There is a Kingdom’, that quotes Emmanuel Kant. Cave sings:

‘There is a kingdom/There is a King/And he lives without/And he lives within/ The starry heavens above me/The moral law within…’

One of the most frustratingly enduring aspects of Cave’s work is that it has been  viewed through an overtly religious lens, and that given his unconventionality notwithstanding he is nonetheless first and foremost a ‘Christian artist’ (9). This is nowhere truer than in scholarly critiques. In his forensic analysis of the twelve songs that make up The Boatman’s Call, Peter Billingham notes how the album ‘conveys Cave’s search for a radical Christian theology that might offer the possibility of an existential spiritual redemption’ (10) Moreover the song ‘There is a Kingdom’ draws upon the image ‘of a bird that begins to sing in celebration of the day and light even whilst in the darkness prior to dawn’, which he suggests ‘carries a clear association to an iconic image from the opening chapter of the Gospel of St John, in which Christ is referred to as the “Logos” or “word” that originates all creation (and creativity)’ (11). I would suggest that the deliberate quotation from Kant provides the ‘spiritual’ hook of the song.

There are obvious Christian influences in Caves work. But this is not a reason for ignoring the humanist machinations of The Boatman’s Call and its deliberate nod towards Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason (1788). The albums contemplative self-reflective tone prefigures Cave’s increasing concern for issues of artistic freedom. In this respect Nick Cave is one of the few artists that recognises the urgent need to defending the character and nature of autonomous human agency – concepts as relevant today as they were for Kant and other eighteenth century Enlightenment thinkers. As Kant’s philosophy upheld the sanctity of reason as the source of moral authority, so to The Red Hand Filesupholds the sanctity of open and free discourse between individuals. 

Nick Cave’s ‘bourgeoise’ individualism stands as an alternative to the pessimism that shapes modern culture and the censorious cynicism that pervades public life. By providing a space for creative, open and mutually respectful communion, The Red Hand Files offers a counterpoint to the woke call out, no platforming culture that has deformed public discourse.  

There seems to be agreement between critics and scholars alike that The Boatman’s Call, for good or bad, marks a sea change in Cave’s artistic development. This turn, I suggest is indicative of a more secularly humanist (re)turn to Enlightenmentesque enquiry that now informs Cave’s recent, and I would argue most important work –The Red Hand Files. Nick Cave is no theologian (12). However, he is an  artist who is not afraid to ‘kick against the pricks.’

  1. https://variety.com/2019/music/news/concert-review-conversations-with-nick-cave-is-part-qa-part-music-part-group-therapy-1203347523/ https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/nov/27/nick-cave-red-hand-files/
  2. Gambatto, A (1985) ‘A Man Called Horse’, in M. Snow (ed.) Nick Cave. Sinner Saint: The True Confessions (London: Plexus) p 37-47. (Originally published Zig Zag Magazine 1985)
  3. Spencer, N (1997) The Boatmans Call in (2013) Nick Cave: Uncut The Ultimate Music Guide (London: Time Inc) pp 90-91 (originally published 3 March 1997).
  4. Emma McCovoy (2007) ‘Now, who will be the witness, when you’re all too healed to see?’: The sad demise of Nick Cave’, Gothic Studies vol 9, Issue 1)
  5. http://drownedinsound.com/in_depth/4142757-i-suppose-people-are-expecting-me-to-say-nick-cave’s-a—dis-talks-to-mick-harvey
  6. Emma McCovoy (2007)
  7. Roland Boer (2011) Hearing Round Corners. Nick Cave and the Philosophy of Music. Relegree. Studies in Religion and Reception, 1 (2). p 316.
  8. Roland Boer (2011 p 316).
  9. John H Barker (2013) Introduction: Nick Cave 21st Century Man, in  J.H Baker (ed.) The Art of Nick Cave. New Critical Essays (Bristol: Intellect)
  10.  Peter Billingham (2013: 24) ‘Into My rms: Themes of Desire & Spirituality in The Boatman’s Call’, In J.H, Baker (ed.) p18.
  11. Peter Billingham (2013) p18-19.
  12. Lyn McCredden (2017) ‘Fleshed sacred. The carnal theologies of Nick Cave’ in Lovely Creatures: The Best of Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds (1984-2014) p 81 (originally published in K Welberry & T Daizell (eds.) (2009) Cultural Seeds: Essays on the work of Nick Cave (Farnham: Ashgate).

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