In his lecture, The Secret Life of the Love Song, Nick Cave laments the one-dimensionality of most popular songwriting, especially love songs. These songs fail us, Cave says, because they only represent a fraction of the lover’s experience. In particular they shy away from sadness: “Songs that do not have within them an ache or a sigh are not truly love songs”, he observes.
Perhaps Cave overstates the case slightly: I can think of several optimistic love songs that always bring a smile to my face. But certainly even these tend to hold some kind of tension, some kind of gravitational force that pulls me in different directions at the same time.
In the written version of Cave’s lecture I found on the Internet (though not on the recording I have of it) he offers Lou Reed’s Perfect Day as an example of the alternative tradition of darkly brooding, complicated love songs he is championing. It seems to be a fairly conventional song at first, a recollection of a day spent together by two lovers in ideal circumstances. Towards the end, however, when the singer remembers: “Just a perfect day, / You made me forget myself. / I thought I was someone else, / Someone good …” Suddenly the perfect day of the song’s title becomes fleeting, ambiguous and hence memorable.
Cave’s own songs, mostly recorded in the company of his long-standing band the Bad Seeds, are often poised between apparently contradictory emotions, accompanied by an irresistible clamour that seems always on the point of becoming unhinged.
People Ain’t No Good, one of the strongest songs on 1997’s fabulous The Boatman’s Call, is less sonically demanding on the surface than most Bad Seeds compositions, but it is in fact one of Cave’s darkest songs, its corrosive power heightened if anything by the sparse accompaniment and Cave’s tenderly broken-hearted delivery.
As its title promises, People Ain’t No Good is an indictment of human frailty and imperfection. It chronicles the entire life of a relationship from its idyllic beginnings (a springtime scene with blossoms sailing down on the world) to its sad and apparently inevitable conclusion.
There can be few moments in popular music more disconsolate than Cave’s conclusion at the song’s end: “It ain’t that in their hearts they’re bad / They can comfort you, some even try / They nurse you when you’re ill of health / They bury you when you go and die / No, it ain’t that in their hearts they’re bad / They’d stick by you if they could / Ah, but that’s just bullshit, baby / People they just ain’t no good …”
The effect of these lines, delivered in Cave’s trademark, slightly out-of-tune baritone, is devastating whether or not one agrees with the sentiments expressed in them. For a start, Cave inhabits the song completely, and when he almost misses the high notes, it is as if his voice echoes the sense of human beings overreaching their limited potential.
But the song’s greatest strength is the tension at its centre: it is meant to demonstrate that people “ain’t no good”, as if it was written in blame and anger, but by the song’s end, we are confronted with a vision of people who desire to be better, but regrettably cannot be. Cave’s voice has a rueful tenderness throughout, tinged with regret: one feels certain at every point that he includes himself in his estimate of humanity.
Songs like these might offer dubious advice, but they serve us because they push us into conversations with others, and crucially with ourselves. I’m smiling to myself as I write this, half agreeing, half disagreeing with Cave, tapping my fingers to the beat of a song which, without trying to, I have learned by heart.