Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Review: The Sick Bag Song (2015) by Nick Cave

It should be a surprise to no one that I am a huge (HUGE, people) fan of Australian post-punk and goth rock icon, Nick Cave. Cave’s dark, and often darkly funny, music with the Birthday Party and the Badseeds has had a major influence on my life, work, and personal aesthetic. Yet, despite my love of Cave’s music and persona, I hadn’t picked up any of Cave’s seven books until fairly recently.

Books by musicians are, more often than not, a profound disappointment: terrible novels (Morrissey), indulgent or underwritten (Morrissey (again!), Kristin Hersh), or tomes that leave you needing a Silkwood shower by the time you’ve finished the introduction (see: any book by a musician in the 1970s who isn’t Patti Smith). So, as you can imagine, I was a little nervous about delving into the bibliography of an artist I hold as dear as Nick Cave; the literary history of rock had left much to be desired.

My first foray into Cave’s bibliography was 2015’s The Sick Bag Song, an epic poem that charts the Badseeds’ 2014 North American tour. The book’s central conceit is that Cave “wrote” the poems on the back of a series of air sickness bags (hence, the title) along each stop of the tour. However, the titular “sick bag” is more than makeshift stationary, it’s a metaphor for the artist’s collective unconscious, where, for better or worse, his multifarious influences reside and vie for his attention.

Like Odysseus on his circuitous journey back to Ithaca, Cave finds himself encountering a cast of characters nearly as fantastical as those of his ancient analog: a dying she-dragon, a decapitated corpse, some rank seafood, and a scantily-clad wraith cheekily flashing the poet as she perpetually climbs over the railings of North America’s bridges.

As he criss-crosses his way across the continent, Cave struggles to get his wife on the telephone. Isolated from the comforts of home, Cave revisits the contents of the sick bag, recalling the formative events and influences that have shaped his life and career.

For Cave, the influences he carts around in his sick bag both shape his art and tax his creativity. In one memory, the poet recalls a flooded music festival where he met a raincoat-clad Bob Dylan, a creative vampire on the cusp of his celebrated Love and Theft (2001) album . . . while Cave’s next release, Nocturama (2003), was a critical and commercial flop. Your influences, Cave seems to say, can only carry you so far; at some point, the artist must purge themselves of their influences and and take a creative leap into the unknown.

At times emotionally affecting, bawdy, hallucinatory, and darkly funny The Sick Bag song is a fever dream of a travelogue that can holds its own against Cave’s impressive discography.

TLD Rating: * * * * / * * * * *