‘Self-loathing in the Howling Void’ – Nick Cave on Kyle Minogue


In which Nick Cave describes a Kylie Minogue pop hit as ‘a harrowing portrait of humanity not dissimilar to that of the Old Testament Psalms’…

While writing a piece for sofa.com about the album The Boatman’s Call by Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, I came across this quite stupendous lecture by Nick Cave in which he discusses love songs, God and the concept of ‘duende’ – a sort of inexpressible sadness or yearning.

But the section that really stood out for me was his analysis of Kylie Minogue’s hit pop record Better the Devil You Know, which he describes as “a harrowing portrait of humanity not dissimilar to that of the Old Testament Psalms.” Here is the passage in full:


“Better The Devil You Know” is one of pop music’s most violent and distressing love lyrics.

Say you wont leave me no more
I`ll take you back again
No more excuses, no no
Cause I´ve heard them all before
A hundred times or more
I´ll forgive and forget

If you say you´ll never go
Cause it’s true what they say
Better the devil you know
I know, I think I know the score
You say you love me, O boy
I can´t ask for more
I´ll come if you should call

When Kylie Minogue sings these words there is an innocence to her voice that makes the horror of this chilling lyric all the more compelling. The idea presented within this song, dark and sinister and sad – that all love relationships are by nature abusive and that his abuse, be it physical or psychological, is welcomed and encouraged, shows how even the most innocuous of love songs has the potential to hide terrible human truths. Like Prometheus chained to his rock, so that the eagle can eat his liver each night, Kylie becomes love’s sacrificial lamb bleating an earnest invitation to the drooling, ravenous wolf that he may devour her time and time again, all to a groovy techno beat. “I´ll take you back. I´ll take you back again”. Indeed. Here the Love Songs becomes a vehicle for a harrowing portrait of humanity not dissimilar to that of the Old Testament Psalms. Both are messages to God that cry out into the yawning void, in anguish and self-loathing, for deliverance.

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8 thoughts on “‘Self-loathing in the Howling Void’ – Nick Cave on Kyle Minogue

  1. george.jansen55@gmail.com'
    January 22, 2015 at 11:26

    In reviewing what was written about Bruce Springsteen’s early music, Mike Royko remarked that columnists who write about the prospect of nuclear war allow themselves a bit of humor or irony now and then, but columnists who write about rock music never do.

    • seamussweeney1@gmail.com'
      Seamus Sweeney
      January 25, 2015 at 16:37

      I miss that kind of full-throated curmudgeonly approach to the galactic self-importance of rock. There aren’t many practitioners of the art of dismissing the pretensions of popular music to massive cultural significance, certainly not in the mainstream of commentary. I guess Roger Scruton and Theodore Dalrymple at one end of the spectrum do so fairly regularly, but I can’t think of many other examples.

  2. law@mhbref.com'
    Jonathan Law
    January 22, 2015 at 16:17

    That is truly wonderful — beyond anything a parodist could come up with and yet at the same time strangely brilliant. As a comment on the Kylie song it’s clearly tosh but I keep coming back to that gem you quote at the sofa place: “the love song is perhaps the truest and most distinctive human gift for recognising God and a gift that God himself needs”. That’s one of those statements that seems like utter bollocks until it flips over in your mind and begins to sound like the obvious truth.

    Rather like Dylan, Nick Cave seems to live quite naturally in that thin slip of the Venn diagram where the circles marked ‘sublime’ and ‘ridiculous’ overlap. Not that this makes for anything like easy listening. I love just about every song on The Boatman’s Call, individually — but it’s still a bit much to listen to all the way through (I either start to feel unbearably morose or get a painful fit of the giggles). Apart from anything else, it’s the only pop record I know that contains a direct quote from Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (“the starry heavens above me and the moral law within”, from ‘There is a Kingdom’).

    I think my favourite Cave lyric of all might be ‘Hallelujah’ from the No More Shall we Part album — I love the element of self-parody but also the way in which it builds up an atmosphere of louring dread which is then blessedly dissipated:

    I’d given my nurse the weekend off
    My meals were ill prepared
    My typewriter had turned mute as a tomb
    And my piano crouched in the corner of my room
    With all its teeth bared
    All its teeth bared
    All its teeth bared

    I left my house without my coat
    Something my nurse would not have allowed
    And I took the small roads out of town
    And I passed a cow and the cow was brown
    And my pyjamas clung to me like a shroud
    Like a shroud
    Like a shroud

    There rose before me a little house
    With all hope and dreams kept within
    A woman’s voice close to my ear
    Said, “Why don’t you come in here?”
    “You looked soaked to the skin”
    Soaked to the skin
    Soaked to the skin

    I turned to the woman and the woman was young
    I extended a hearty salutation
    But I knew if my nurse had been here
    She would never in a thousand years
    Permit me to accept that invitation
    That invitation

    Now, you might think it wise to risk it all
    Throw caution to the reckless wind
    But with her hot cocoa and her medication
    My nurse had been my one salvation
    So I turned back home
    I turned back home
    I turned back home
    Singing my song ….

  3. January 22, 2015 at 16:45

    Cave proves that just because it’s bollocks, doesn’t mean it’s not true.

  4. johngjobling@googlemail.com'
    January 22, 2015 at 17:39

    Great similarity between Cave’s analysis of the Aussie popsical’s song and the staggering revelation that, in fact, Manfred Mann’s Do Wah Diddy Diddy was allegorical and referred to Aldous Huxley’s Eyeless in Gaza.

    There she was just walkin’ down the street
    Singin’, “Do wah diddy, diddy, dum diddy do”
    Snappin’ her fingers and shufflin’ her feet
    Singin’, “Do wah diddy diddy, dum diddy do”

    She looked good, she looked fine
    (Looked good, looked fine)
    She looked good, she looked fine
    And I nearly lost my mind

    The clue may be in the last line, old Aldous, as we know, went potty.

    Cave would make an excellent modern French philosopher.

    • peter.burnet@hotmail.com'
      January 22, 2015 at 18:31

      Indeed, malty, and who could forget the Beach Boys’ haunting evocation of the spiritual tragedy of The Wandering Jew?

      Round round get around
      I get around
      Get around round round I get around
      I get around
      Get around round round I get around
      From town to town
      Get around round round I get around
      I’m a real cool head
      Get around round round I get around
      I’m makin’ real good bread

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