In 1988, an obscure band from Australia, then based in West Berlin, released a single that flew in the face of all other pop music at the time. The UK charts that year saw Kylie Minogue at the top with I Should Be So Lucky, alongside such other feel-good tunes as Belinda Carlisle’s Heaven is a Place on Earth and The Hollies’ He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother. In the late 80s, as much as now, pop music favoured slick production, bright, crisp timbre and, for the most part, fairly banal, inoffensive lyrics.
Imagine, then, the unsuspecting audience’s reaction to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ The Mercy Seat upon first hearing it on the radio.
This is a dark, intense, droney and doom-laden song. Its production is intentionally hideous, its lyrics, when audible, are macabre and drenched in biblical allusions, and Cave’s distinctively low, gravelly voice drifts in and out of tune like a tortured, guttural wail. The average radio listener would probably have switched stations within the first minute. In fact, the average radio station probably wouldn’t have aired it at all. What’s more, this is the single edit. In the full version from the album Tender Prey, that hypnotic, morbid chant carries on for a further two minutes.
What’s the significance of this?
Well, it’s ugly. Really ugly. And it has to be. If a composer were given the task of setting Cave’s words to music, they would probably create something that was intentionally uncomfortable to listen to. The music has to reflect the words.
Of course, the idea of music being ugly is hardly anything new. Long before Cave, in the world of classical music, the likes of Bartok, Stravinsky, Hindemith and, of course, Schoenberg and his pupils, were writing expressionist music that, unlike Romantic music that pulled at the heart-strings, rather grabbed them in bloodied fists and tore them out. They sought to portray, as philosopher Theodor Adorno put it, ‘the truthfulness of subjective feeling without illusions, disguises or euphemisms.’ While Brahms might have conveyed his sadness and desperate longing with a succession of cadences in minor keys or a melancholic, descending melody (Adorno’s ‘euphemism’), Berg might represent unbridled fury with a series of violently dissonant, rhythmic stabs.
Ugliness is an essential part of art. There are certainly those who would argue that art and music should only be beautiful, that the world has enough ugliness already and that we should not try to create any more. But this severely limits artistic expression. The Berg excerpt you have just heard is, like The Mercy Seat, likely to have the average listener switching to something a little ‘easier on the ears’ before too long.
It is strange that this should be the case in music, but not in other art forms.
One of Britain’s most celebrated artists, Francis Bacon, had his critical breakthrough in 1944 with this triptych, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion.
This is certainly uncomfortable to look at. These three, agonised, writhing creatures are human enough that they force the observer to imagine themself as one of them, stretched, stunted and mutilated.
Perhaps music has the capacity to be even uglier than this painting, owing to its inherent abstractness. If we look at Bacon’s painting, we see only the screaming figures. But if we listen to Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, our imaginations can conjure up all manner of sinister, nightmarish imagery.
However, Benjamin Britten believed that ugliness in music, and its capacity to evoke whatever extreme emotion, is beautiful in itself. ‘It is cruel,’ he said, ‘that music should be so beautiful. It has the beauty of loneliness, of pain; of strength and freedom; the beauty of disappointment and never-satisfied love; the cruel beauty of nature and everlasting beauty of monotony.’ Being made to feel an unpleasant emotion by a work of art can be just as moving and beautiful an experience as being made to feel an enjoyable emotion.
Let’s return to The Mercy Seat
I think this song, one of Nick Cave’s signature tunes, is very important in the realm of pop music. There have been pop artists before, like Tom Waits, Black Sabbath or The Cure who have made ugly-sounding records. (If you don’t believe me, listen to the first track on The Cure’s Album Pornography). But nothing was ever quite as remorselessly bleak as The Mercy Seat. It paved the way for pop music to take white noise, dissonance and inaudible lyrics to the extreme. Its string arrangement, a bed of scratchy, unstable, indistinct noise, bridges the gap between The Jesus and Mary Chain’s thick, fuzzy guitar sound and My Bloody Valentine’s relentlessly dense and obscure string samples.
To Here Knows When, described by Brian Eno as ‘the vaguest song ever’, has something in common with the music of the expressionist composers in that it tries to convey a feeling as literally as the abstract medium of music will allow. This song sounds like what it feels like to be stoned or high, not unlike Lennon’s Tomorrow Never Knows at the end of Revolver by The Beatles, though My Bloody Valentine have undoubtedly taken this idea to its extreme. In fact, some of the twisted stringle samples on their album Loveless are quite reminiscent of the ‘binaural beats’, (produced by playing two sine waves together which are only a few hertz apart in pitch), which can supposedly induce effects similar to those experienced while taking hallucinogenic drugs. Though it certainly makes me feel a little dizzy, I’m not entirely convinced, but you can try for yourself:
Let’s wrap up by taking a quick look at Johnny Cash. Nick Cave’s early albums often featured covers of songs by American bluesmen, including Johnny Cash, who Cave considered a personal hero. In 2000, Cash turned the covers correspondence on its head by covering Cave’s song, The Mercy Seat. His version is very, very different, but still excellent. I cannot choose which version is my favourite.
While the narrator in Cave’s original seems, despite his protestations, to be guilty of his crime and longing for the end of his imprisonment, accepting his fate on the electric chair, Cash sings as though his character truly is innocent and is fighting for his life. The final line of the chorus, ‘I’m not afraid to die’, is defiant for Cash, but resigned for Cave, who said, ‘like all the songs he does, [Cash] made it his own. He’s a great interpreter of songs – that’s part of his genius.’ Cash’s intention in recording the song was to draw attention to the issue of capital punishment, dedicating it to the ‘convicted innocent’. He asks, ‘if a man’s been [in prison] 25 years, maybe we should consider whether or not he has become a good human being and if we still want to kill him.’
These two interpretations are also very much reflected in, or perhaps determined by the music. Contrasting Cave’s dense, doomy, monotonous soundbed, Cash’s guitar is bright and lively, complemented with gentle strings and a soulful harmonium, with a few additional licks of colour in the harmony, like the descending chromatic line in the refrain. Neither Cave nor Cash have been imprisoned, (though Cash spent the odd night in jail), but both have been in the prison of addiction. Maybe it is the sense of autobiography that each brings to their version of the song which makes both of them sincere, legitimate interpretations.
The same cannot be said for this cover by American electronic/hip-hop band Stromkern, with which calamity I will leave you: