December 1, 2020

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Nick Cave: Idiot Prayer: Nick Cave Alone at Alexandra Palace

Years ago, people asked Nick Cave questions at their peril. In 1988, one NME hack riled him so badly that Cave started swinging punches, tried to steal the interview tape, and screamed: “You’re nothing but a shite-eater!” Today, though, you can ask him anything—literally—and he’ll answer on his Red Hand Files website. How do I cope with losing someone I love? Should I bring children into this world’s Boschian hellscape? Do you enjoy stage magic? Every warm, generous response makes Cave seem more like a kindly agony uncle instead of the larger-than-life construct of yore. The man who once passed for some crazed netherworld shaman, as unearthly and sinister as the stranger from “Red Right Hand,” usually limits the supernatural grandeur to discussing his beloved dachshund, Nosferatu.

Other recent projects have made Cave the flesh-and-blood human more visible, too: chatty Q&A shows, candid documentaries, and a poignant Bad Seeds record, 2019’s Ghosteen, touched by the death of his son, Arthur. But none have been as eerily intimate as Idiot Prayer. A live film and LP recorded at London’s Alexandra Palace after Covid-19 waylaid a Bad Seeds tour, it finds him performing alone in a deserted concert hall, reworking 22 career-spanning songs into haunted piano sermons. The 84 minutes are filled almost entirely by melancholy keys and Cave’s rich croon. On the solitary new track, the longing ballad “Euthanasia,” he sings of spending a desperate evening roaming lonely landscapes, unmoored by grief and seeking salvation. “In looking for you, I lost myself,” he quivers over its elegant arrangement.

That contemplative approach means Cave doesn’t so much strip songs down as peel back the flesh and expose their skeletal beauty. “Sad Waters” is recast as a pretty, tumbling lament; “Stranger Than Kindness” is broken down into a ghostly hymn; an otherworldly “Girl in Amber” entrances. Nearly a third of the set is taken from 1997’s The Boatman’s Call, a choice which forges a spiritual link between that record’s stately heartbreak and Ghosteen’s sublime ruminations on grief. In Alexandra Palace’s lavish, uncanny void, the lines between past and present start to blur, and compositions become unstuck in time. Twenty-year-old wounds are as tender as purpling bruises on “Brompton Oratory” and “Far From Me,” while Cave’s choked falsetto on the sparse, sumptuous “Black Hair” suggests the scent that an ex-lover left on his pillow still fills his nostrils. “Waiting For You,” on the other hand, emerged just last year, yet he purges the Ghosteen version’s gauzy electronic sheen until only a brittle prayer remains, and his voice cracks as if he’s spent an eternity in purgatory.

Inevitably, the spartan setup favors a certain vein of Cave’s songwriting. For the most part, he snubs the Bad Seeds’ priapic sleaze and fire-and-brimstone filth to embrace his softer side. When he sinks into heartbreak on “Nobody’s Baby Now,” it’s as wistful as the coda to a silver-screen romance; during Grinderman’s “Palaces of Montezuma,” which is reimagined as a jazzy lounge number, his grand pledges waver between bravado and bashfulness. As with many of the deconstructions, the unvarnished treatment allows a greater vulnerability to shine through.

And yet some of Idiot Prayer’s finest moments crackle with a more dangerous energy. On a handful of mesmerizing tracks, Cave sounds less like he’s revisiting his songbook than conducting a seance. “Higgs Boson Blues,” a sprawling surrealist odyssey on 2013’s Push the Sky Away, starts out hushed but slowly spirals into a fevered vision. “Driving my car, flame trees on fire,” he keens over its music-box melody; by the song’s end, as he riffs on Miley Cyrus, monkeys, and smallpox-carrying missionaries, his voice has broken into a howl and he’s hammering away at the keys. Old live favorite “The Mercy Seat,” meanwhile, has rarely had the kind of dark intensity that Cave summons here, transformed into a glowing murder ballad.

About 30-odd minutes in, just after he’s finished a forlorn “(Are You) The One That I’ve Been Waiting For?,” Cave lets slip a quick, disbelieving chuckle, as if suddenly snapping out of a reverie. Otherwise, there’s no talking, no wisecracking, no concession that anyone else might be listening in as he reckons with his life’s work. The result is a performance that exists in a strange hinterland, an album that’s unnervingly intimate yet flickers with the strange unreality of a dream. Idiot Prayer is as up-close and personal an encounter with Cave as there’s ever been. But a little mystery remains, always.


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