In a recent interview in The New York Times, singer Nick Cave reflected on his children developing their own tastes in music.
“Occasionally they’ll find something that’s really mind-blowing. But sometimes I hear what they’re playing, and I just want to cut my wrists,” said Cave, who will play at the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts Monday night.
It’s easy to imagine Cave’s parents in Australia having a similar reaction to Cave’s late 1970s band, The Birthday Party, and its harsh, macabre, darkly humored rock.
A mythologized American South fed his musical imagination then, and it still does today, but Cave’s less raucous sound and more cinematic storytelling has made him respectable.
Cave’s image in America is changing. There was a time when “family man” was an unlikely descriptor for an artist who specialized in murder ballads and spiritual allegories, all with salvation and damnation at stake.
He hasn’t scaled down his vision; last year’s album “Push the Sky Away” includes the song “Higgs Boson Blues,” in which bluesman Robert Johnson fights the devil for his soul, and the battle takes down a community in the process.
Musically, he undersells apocalyptic vision, breathing the story into listeners’ ears as electric guitars lazily strum the blues, and his dark sense of humor shows itself when Miley Cyrus is one of the casualties.
For years, Cave cultivated his version of the Man in Black mythology. Like Johnny Cash, he wore a black suit — though with a white shirt — and a rigorous, Old Testament vibe of extreme, poetic justice ran through his stories.
With dyed black hair and strong, dark eyebrows, he presented himself as a forbidding, prophetic figure, but with an unshakable rock ’n’ roll undercurrent.
There’s a little Elvis Presley in his live presentation, and his song “Tupelo” merges the story of Elvis’ birth and his older-by-minutes brother Jesse Garon’s death with a John Lee Hooker blues song by the same name describing an apocalyptic flood.
In the New York Times story, he remembers going with his band to Graceland once, but not going in.
“Those last Elvis performances — the ones for television, when he was already sick — I must have watched those clips a hundred times,” Cave said. “They’re like crucifixions.”
The occasion for the New York Times story is the imminent release of the documentary “20,000 Days on Earth,” the documentary on Cave that won two awards at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year.
The trailer presents him as a man who gets dressed in his trademark white shirt and black suit, even to sit at a typewriter and work, someone who’s as driven as any of the characters in his songs.
“20,000 Days on Earth” is self-consciously cinematic, with real conversations taking place in deliberately lit and photogenically framed spaces. In that way, it mirrors the transformations that take place in Cave’s music.
He’s acting when he sings, adjusting mood and method to suit the lines and phrases in his story-length songs. Rural American blues and country music influence his sound, but the source material is made more continental and theatrical.
He’s not interested in the music as the gritty residue of the real lives of musicians and their communities; Cave hones in on the mythic weight the genres carry and the storytelling forms they present him.
In concert, he is rock star magnetic, and any complaints about overly artsy music become irrelevant. In a review of an earlier stop on the tour, Randall Roberts of the Los Angeles Times wrote, “Throughout 90 minutes, he was a menace hellbent on exploring good and evil, love and hate, a man battling overwhelming desire and insidious demons.”
On stage, he sings every word as if he’s living it. As the documentary suggests though, the man on stage is as much a creation as his songs.
When Australian pop star Kylie Minogue confesses to Cave that she had to speed-read his autobiography, he says, “You read that thing?” and pauses theatrically. “That wasn’t the truth.”