In this haunting cinematic experience, its just Nick Cave, the piano, his microphone and a growing pile of sheet music at his feet
Nick Cave’s latest effort, Idiot Prayer, will undoubtedly be viewed decades hence as one of the preeminent embodiments of the 2020 pandemic, and the darkly romantic bard may have been the best candidate for the job.
This keenly artistic document (available as video and music) was initially streamed live in Australia July 23 as a veritable concert – started at a certain time and not rewindable. (When unexpected glitches marred the “broadcast” for some, a second weekend-long viewing window was opened.) Cave performs solo on piano in an empty auditorium, the very nature of the performance an artifact of the times and collision of form and function.
In the visual version, shot by cinematographer Robbie Ryan and edited by Nick Emerson, we are reminded in the uninterrupted empty hall show of our unique predicament. It’s necessarily spare – just Cave, the piano, his microphone and a growing pile of sheet music at his feet. There are other hints as the camera moves in, out and circles, such as the fourth-wall bridging moment when a cameraman is revealed.
Similar in manner to his idol Johnny Cash, Cave plumbs emotional depths while his appearance mirrors his dark imprimatur. Here his face is often cast in well-crafted shadow, the lines of age like burnished wisdom to underline his aching narratives. Many of these 22 (26 on film) songs had to be adapted from full-band versions where other instruments could amplify and enrich the musical subtext, providing atmosphere and counterpoints.
Cave fills that absence by leaning into the lyrics and their delivery. Just as with a solo acoustic guitar performance, less can be more. Suddenly phrasing, intonation and subtle shifts in rhythm of the vocals can be loud as feedback on the relatively empty soundstage. It’s reminiscent of how our thoughts and emotions can be deafening absent others on which to moor and balance ourselves.
Indeed, Cave’s oeuvre feels almost uniquely suited for the moment. Across 84/102 minutes (the filmic version features a four-song encore), themes of isolation, separation, loneliness and devotion appear serially. There are women trapped in amber, fathers who died to soon, “Nobody’s Baby Now,” back-to-back songs about waiting in abeyance, at least two circling ships (“Galleon Song,” “The Ship Song”), a relationship dying from distance (“Far from Me”), and a song dedicated to the unseen universal force that gives things weight (“Higgs Boson Blues”).
While there’s a peculiar simplicity and quiet elegance to Cave’s piano recital, it’s also very theatrical in its own way. Witnessing Bob Mould playing solo electric in January on the cusp of what 2020 would become, I was struck by the sort of monkish intensity of his attention and the rhythmic way his moved his body, suggesting a kid alone in his room with his guitar going off. While different from the over-the-top style of Jerry Lee Lewis and Elton John, Cave possesses a similar charm like a black hole; he keeps inviting you to edge closer to the void with the intent way he gazes into it.
Cave sandwiches two of his classics “Jubilee Street” and “The Mercy Seat” around a “new” track, the mid-set ballad “Euthanasia,” which didn’t make it onto 2016’s ambient-inflected Skeleton Tree, the album written in the wake of his teenage son’s accidental death. It’s a decent song, but gets a bit crushed between two terrific Cave staples. “Higgs Boson Blues” and the love ode “Palaces of Montezuma” from his side project Grinderman are equals to their brilliant studio versions. The same goes for “Papa Won’t Leave You, Henry” which is now slower and significantly grimier like a Tom Waits outtake circa Frank’s Wild Years.
VIDEO: Idiot Prayer film trailer
Tastes will vary, but several tracks particularly stuck out to these ears, benefiting from the less-is-more aesthetic compared to their studio forbearers. “Sad Waters” tastes like refreshing crisp and transparent mountain spring water absent the original’s sung-in-the-round echo affectation. Similarly, the downbeat ballad “Far From Me,” benefits from Cave’s ability to caress every syllable parsing them out like meal courses, allowing proper time to savor each as he surveys the galactic distance between former lovers.
It’s a feat he repeats with “Stranger Than Kindness,” whose prior recording sort of swam in a sea of ambient background noise that suggested mental static or an imbalance. Removing these sonic crutches, Cave dives into the character, the hesitancy and fear that grips those denied common decency for long enough to find kindness a foreign, untrustworthy behavior. His vocals rise and fall as the line reading betrays a struggle within, tension that manifests in spiky dynamics and the way he bites into the word “kindness.”
It would be malpractice not to mention the film’s exclusive four-song coda. It opens with Cave’s beautifully romantic paean, “Love Letter” and the haunting Rear Window-esque “Watching Alice,” then steps it up an unfathomable four levels with a heart-rending cover of Leonard Cohen’s classic “Avalanche” and closes with a mic drop version of T Rex’s “Cosmic Dancer,” that captures the child-like innocence, wonder and discovery at the heart of Mark Bolan’s music. These last two covers are nearly worth the price of admission alone, giving a deep edge to the filmic version.
Despite his more understated, subtextual manner, Cave is every bit the showman of a Elton John or Jerry Lee Lewis. It perhaps took a pandemic to definitively prove it, because usually live shows are playing for the back row. It’s theatre versus video, subtle machinations versus broad melodramatic strokes. What it took was a pandemic where our world shrunk and every faucet drip seemed foreboding.
It’s the close-up Cave needed to fully communicate an moody oeuvre where much of the action happens in the murky depths below.