'The Complete Lyrics' by Nick Cave (2013)

The Complete Lyrics 1978-2013 - Nick Cave

Nick Cave, The Complete Lyrics 1978-2013 (London: Penguin Books, 2013), updated edition, 529pp


A great collection which makes a mostly-successful attempt to recreate the power of Nick Cave's songs on paper. Cave is a exceptional poet and lyricist, and this shows in a lot of the songs included here (including some killer lines that you might have missed when listening to them). However, to a greater extent than, say, Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen, and more in line with Tom Waits, Cave's songwriting ability has always relied on the lyrics' harmony with the music (not to mention the interpretation inherent in the vocal performances). Consequently, some of the songs don't work when divorced from their musical accompaniment, especially the earlier ones when Cave was a less consistent writer.

These earlier songs aren't presented well, with repeated lines and a misguided attempt to render Cave's manic vocal inflections on the page. In addition, the songs from 2008's Dig, Lazarus, Dig! are also presented strangely, with a mass of exclamation marks and lines rendered in full capitals. In this latter section, words are also abbreviated in weird ways; 'you', for example, is rendered as 'y/', 'your' as 'yr', 'hand' as 'h&', 'with' as 'w/' and 'et cetera' as '&tc'. The lyrics in this section consequently become rather impenetrable, ruining a good set of songs, including my favourite, 'More News from Nowhere'. Thankfully, it is only this one album which is affected; others, particularly the songs from The Boatman's Call and No More Shall We Part, are elegant on the page.

Will Self's introduction didn't really do much for me, though he does make a decent argument about the decline of poetry as a popular art form and its usurpation by singer-songwriters. ("Whatever need we have for the esemplastic unities of sound, meaning and rhythm that were traditionally supplied by spoken verse, we now find, amply, in sung lyrics." (pg. x)). But Cave's own 'The Secret Life of the Love Song' lecture is exceptional, and worth the price of admission alone. Not only is it a thought-provoking piece (and a rare example of an artist talking fluently about his own inspiration and muse), but it also provides a useful framework in which to view the lyrics that follow in the rest of the book.