[21 September 2003]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
God Is in the House might seem like an unlikely title for a Nick Cave DVD; his discography is ridden with dark tales of murder, illicit desires and mad obsessions. Yet he’s always been interested in God’s tales—in Biblical stories in particular—even as he wouldn’t strike anyone as a particularly religious man. After all, he did once write the introduction to a pocket edition of the Gospel According to Mark. Yet in Nick Cave’s vision God always seems to have a sinister side. That duality is embodied in Cave’s presence on stage. In the 90-minute concert film that makes up the bulk of God Is in the House, Cave is a dapper, slim man in a suit, roaming the stage like an evangelist. But for who is he preaching? On his face is a sly grin, and he’s likely to flail his arms and jump about as if temporarily possessed by the holy spirit of Punk Rock.
The concert was filmed in Lyon, France, on 8 June 2001, at a time when Cave and his Bad Seeds were out promoting No More Shall We Part, an album that is distinctly not punk rock. Along with its predecessor The Boatman’s Call and, to a slightly lesser extent, their latest album Nocturama, No More Shall We Part marked Cave and band’s switch to a more relaxed mode of making music. The textured, almost gentle album uses piano and strings extensively. Yet while half the songs in the God Is in the House concert are ballads from No More Shall We Part and Boatman’s Call, every song, fast or slow, is delivered with an intensity that’s enough to scare the beejesus out of you, drive you to tears, or do both, depending on the lyrical content and your disposition. The seven members of the Bad Seeds (including now ex-Bad Seed Blixa Bargeld doing serious damage on his guitar and Warren Ellis of the Dirty Three delivering melancholy violin solos) give an impressive backbone to each song, from the slowest love song to the most brazen rockers.
In 90 minutes, Cave and the Bad Seeds manage to hit on something from most of their albums. In between the newer songs they play seriously devilish older numbers like “Saint Huck”, which Cave introduces as the first song the Bad Seeds ever wrote, and “The Curse of Millhaven”, a gleeful, blood-ridden singalong from the Murder Ballads album. The fact that the fun, “everybody sing along” song where each band member gets introduced for a solo is also a tale of mass murder should give you a sense of where Cave and his audience are at. That’s an unfair observation though, as his songs together form an epic tale that’s about much more than just death and destruction. His music is eqaully about love and hope, about power struggles, about finding something to believe. God Is in the House does give viewers a solid sense of all of that, too. With one song from The Good Son, one from Henry’s Dream, one from Tender Prey, two from Let Love In, and so on, this concert film is not just a snapshot of Cave’s music circa 2001, but an overview of what his whole solo career has been about, from 1984 to 2001.
The other films on the DVD are more 2001-focused. One is a nearly 40-minute documentary look at the recording sessions for No More Shall We Part. The others are three music videos for songs from the album. The videos—for “As I Sat Sadly by Her Side”, “Fifteen Feet of Pure Snow”, and “Love Letter”—present the public face of the group at the time, which is mellow and melancholy, both musically and visually. None of them will blow cinema-snobs away, yet all three successfully capture a mix of sadness, beauty and fear. “As I Sat Sadly by Her Side” opens with Cave singing in what appears to be a room of mirrors, with his image spread all around. It at first seems mundane, until behind him appears a series of images, pretty and ugly, from the Ku Klux Klan to a blooming flower. “Fifteen Feet . . .” finds Cave and the Bad Seeds performing to a dancing crowd in a roadhouse somewhere, all of it captured with a dreamy, stylish look reminiscent of David Lynch films. “Love Letter” alternates between Cave playing the song on a television in an abandoned bedroom with pretty, mostly still shots of empty streets and landscapes, emphasizing the sadness behind the singer’s love ballad. All three “promotional videos” (as the DVD accurately refers to them) show the way such commercial films can be done artfully, so that the images and music meet in interesting ways.
If the videos represent the glitzy public face the band, No More Shall We Part: The Recording Sessions is the kind of stripped-down portrait that gives a glimpse of the real people and the sometimes arduous process behind making music. Set entirely in the studio, the images that dominate the film of Cave and his bandmates recording takes and then playing them back, of them discussing what to do when, and giving each other advice. There’s little overarching commentary about what they’re doing, just and endless series of takes and re-takes, interrupted by listening, analyzing and a little bit of goofing around so they don’t drive themselves crazy. The film is a compelling portrait of the tedium, precision and cooperation behind making an album. It rounds out the already rounded portrait that God Is in the House offers of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. You witness the band playing their hearts out, posing for promotional purposes, and carefully constructing . . . pretty much everything that’s involved in being a rock band.