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It's only rock'n'roll and they write it

Love this Life: Lyrics 1978-2001 by Neil Finn, Allen & Unwin, $27.95; The Complete Lyrics by Nick Cave, Penguin, $24

reviews by Stephen Cummings - The Age, Melbourne, 23 July 2001

``My artistic life has centred around an attempt to articulate an almost palpable sense of loss that laid claim to my life. A great gaping hole was blasted out of my world by the unexpected death of my father when I was 19 years old. The way I learned to fill this hole, this void, was to write.'' - Nick Cave. The Secret Life of the Love Song.

``We're the band people feel the need to apologise for liking.'' - Neil Finn on Crowded House.

Neil Finn is a terrific songwriter, though I've never rated him as a lyricist. What makes him a fine songwriter is his instinctive craftsmanship and ear for a good tune. Rock lyrics rarely qualify as poetic on the printed page. The power of rock music lies in the unrefined energy of the music and performance, not its libretto.

Finn admits as much in his introduction to Love This Life, a collection of his lyrics from 23 years as a songwriter with Split Enz, Crowded House and, most recently, as a solo artist. ``A good lyric is always embedded in a good tune, the sound of the words and the rhythm and phrasing all seem to be integral and essential. On paper they may still have resonance, but usually not make the grade as poetry,'' he says.

One of the few exceptions to Finn's rule would be Nick Cave. From his beginnings with The Birthday Party, Cave has demonstrated his ability to play with words in a dramatic, leering and almost heroic way. The minimal nature of Cave's composition reveals his music's strengths - his tortured lyricism - and flaws - his lack of melody and undeveloped chord construction.

Analysis of lyrics in popular music is always problematic. Rock criticism tends to champion certain forms of music above others. Rock is thought to be superior to pop. Historically, it has been placed in the established art hierarchy along with theatre, dance and cinema, while pop is dumped into the popular-culture basket because its lyrics and compositions are deeemed vacuous. Pop is all about popularity.

Another consideration is what impact the actual musical performance has on how one understands a song. One of the interesting things about John Lee Hooker is that if his lyrics were transcribed on a page they would appear babble. Hooker communicated everything through his voice and guitar. All the great soul singers have this command of emotional intensity. They don't so much sing a lyric as inhabit it. Every moan communicates more than most singers could do with a book full of lyrics. Possibly it's the singer, not the song, that's important as Mick Jagger and Keith Richard once remarked.

Finn comes from the school of semi-obscure lyricism, where words are used as much for their sonic quality as they are for effectiveness in conveying a thought or emotion. An examination of Neil Finn's lyrics reveals recurring themes and characteristics. Beneath the surface gloss beats a heart constantly questioning itself. Finn has not only written a number of touching songs about his wife, but also his dog. They brim with fractured declarations that read like scrambled messages written hurriedly on the back of a postcard, as though he feels unhappy about having to lay his state of mind open to judgment.

Reading these lyrics dry was unrewarding work. The words aren't readily transparent. I continually felt the urge to cross-reference the words with the recordings. Probably, with Finn, what really matters is that when the words meet the music, it all makes sense.

Nick Cave has managed to be out of step with music fashion and still be a mainstream success. As he said recently: ``As you get older, rock and roll has the potential to be a really embarrassing, even humiliating, way to make a living.'' Which may explain why Cave has steered a different course for his music over the past decade. He stripped down the musical backbone of his songs, while simultaneously developing his lyrical themes.

He has never really been a great singer, although paradoxically, his covers album, Kicking against the Pricks, is good. The dominant themes of Cave's songs are the volatile effects of love and desire and such grandiose notions as the soul and spirit. His songs deal with the polarity between love and revulsion.

Cave is a writer who has blurred his life with his art. Many of the protagonists in his songs have self-destructive tendencies. A number of his best tunes are built around his simple, inexplicably moving piano. Cave knows how to build a story. He writes songs about his gals and gods and the redemptive power of love. The best story songs are The Mercy Seat, Slowly Goes the Night and From Her to Eternity. His most romantic songs are West Country Girl and Lime Tree Arbour. His best pop song is Deanna. Cave's happy endings always have a black cloud fluttering on the horizon. I should also note that he has a sense of humor.

Love this Life is a small up-market hardback with an elegant cover featuring a ceramic made by Finn's wife, Sharon. The book includes the songs from Finn's catalogue from 1978 up to his current album, One Nil. Both books follow an album-by-album approach, though Finn's book is structured from the present backwards, which makes evaluating his development difficult. The cover of Cave's book is a shot of the singer-songwriter looking like a creature from another planet where people are more unstrung than us.

What always puzzles me is who buys these books of rock lyrics? Most words are already available to listeners on record sleeves or the Net. It might have been useful if Finn had provided thumbnail sketches of particular songs, so the reader could understand what stimulated him to write. Cave's autobiographical essay, The Secret Life of the Love Song, prefaces his book and is simultaneously instructive, eloquent and pretentious.

Arguably, pop music has been in slow decline since the early 1970s. Finn has bucked this trend by bringing an inventive approach to his music. He is one of the best craftsmen operating in the great cultural recycling centre. Cave knows exactly what he is doing. He's an odd cross between a Jim Thompson crime novel and a mediaeval knight on the search for the Holy Grail. His songs are invariably about release and redemption. Judging from the lyrics on his most recent album, Cave is on a path of spiritual questioning, now that he is free from the impulse to immerse himself in the role of the offbeat outcast.

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