Nick Cave looks into his dark mind with ‘20,000 Days on Earth’ documentary


Nick Cave in a scene from the rock documentary "20,000 Days on Earth." The film premiered at Sundance in January and now Cave is taking it on the road as he tours the U.S. with The Bad Seeds this summer. (Drafthouse Films via Associated Press)

Nick Cave is famous for his particular mastery of words, which he puts to use most notably as a songwriter, but also as a screenwriter and novelist.

But there’s one word that he uses better than anyone, and it’s got four letters.

Babe.

(Yes, he uses some other four-letter words pretty well, too.)

“I get a lot of criticism for that word,” offers Cave, who has penned songs such as “Babe, I’m on Fire” and “Babe, You Turn Me On.” “But I don’t know. It just feels part of a kind of rock-and-roll legacy.” Some have said Cave’s use of the word is regressive or demeaning, but Cave feels that the language of songwriting doesn’t — and shouldn’t — adhere to whatever standards govern regular discourse.

“To me, songs are of a place, where anything goes,” he says by phone from Calgary, Canada, a stop on his tour, which comes to the District’s DAR Constitution Hall on Wednesday. “Songs are kind of a ringed fence to the rest of the modern world as places where we can be playful, we can be politically incorrect. It’s kind of anything goes for me.”

“Anything goes” is an understated way to describe what happens in the world Cave creates. All manner of mayhem, lust and violence have found their way into his lyrics — calling someone “babe” is truly the most minor of transgressions contained within — which are given an equally stately and chaotic musical treatment by his backing band of more than 30 years, the Bad Seeds. Cave, 56, is responsible for one of the most commanding and evocative bodies of work in rock music over the past few decades, and he’s only getting better as he gets older. The Australia native’s four most recent albums — two with the Bad Seeds and two with his primal and provocative side project Grinderman — mark the greatest sustained stretch of an already decorated career.

It’s enough to earn him a bit of a vanity project, which is a fair way to describe the new quasi-documentary “20,000 Days on Earth,” which gives Cave’s fans (and this is a for-fans-only affair) a unique viewpoint as to how his songs come to exist. The film, now in limited release, is neither a traditional “behind the music” rock doc or a concert film, but something of a semi-fictional fever dream that follows Cave over the course of 24 hours as he explores his creative process, from inspiration to execution. There are scenes of Cave being psychoanalyzed and sharing car rides and conversations with past collaborators, including Kylie Minogue. But the one trait “20,000 Days on Earth” does have in common with many music documentaries is that performances are the high points. The climax is a stirring recording session of “Higgs Boson Blues,” one of the standout tracks from last year’s Bad Seeds album, “Push the Sky Away.”

“Something is happening that I’d never seen before until I saw that piece of footage,” Cave says of the recording studio performance captured by cameras. “Of what it was actually like to record a song and how everyone is teetering on the edge of something.” Cave can be seen in an almost trance-like state at the piano while guitarist Warren Ellis is similarly lost in the moment, yet the two manage to communicate via what almost seems like telepathy.

The film embraces that kind of mystical energy that can contribute to artistic triumphs. Cave’s narration adds to this, as he talks about the special “feeling of a song before you understand it . . . the moment when the song is still in charge.”

But there are plenty of signs throughout that there’s more than divine intervention leading to musical breakthroughs, and Cave is quick to dispel any notion that songwriting is a purely spiritual undertaking.

“I do talk about the kind of magical aspect, but there’s also a very practical, time-consuming, work-orientated side to songwriting that is in no way magical,” Cave says. He’s forever filling up notebook after notebook with drafts of lyrics, the majority of which will be discarded. Sometimes, “you can see the genesis of a song happen 20 or 30 pages back in a book and then the idea slowly develops through these notebooks until it gets to a place where I feel it’s a song and it’s good. And then I type it out on the typewriter.” The final version always gets the typewriter treatment, one index-finger-punched letter at a time.

“Higgs Boson Blues” is one of those songs that you can sense was a few notebooks in the making. Upon its release, it immediately became one of Cave’s signature tunes, an eight-minute journey that’s a solid representation of the sound Cave does best. Musically, it’s slow-burning and restrained, built on rolling drums and chilling organ. Lyrically, it’s aggressively dark and disturbing (“Well here comes Lucifer with his canon law / And a hundred black babies running from his genocidal jaw”), as Cave croons with the authority of someone reporting from the front lines of some sort of post-apocalyptic hellscape, not sparing any vivid detail.

Cave’s tour finds him spending multiple nights in most cities, to accommodate a screening of the film one evening and a concert the next. In the District, though, the film won’t screen; fans will have to make do with Wednesday’s show. It’s hardly a consolation prize. Equally as compelling as the film’s recording studio performance of “Higgs Boson Blues” is the in-concert rendition of “Finishing Jubilee Street,” the other standout from “Push the Sky Away.” The song anchors the film, which tracks the spark of the idea at the beginning to its realization as a full-bodied rock anthem at the end.

“Our records have always been — and increasingly so — stepping stones for the live presentation of those songs,” Cave says. “And really, they don’t find their full potential until the live shows. I think that’s always been the way with the Bad Seeds.”

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds perform at DAR Constitution Hall on Wednesday at 8 p.m. $29.50-$55. 202-628-1776.

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