Heart of the nation
It's not all about him ... Nick Cave subverts love cliches to powerful effect.
The poet C.J. Dennis wrote about love in a very Australian way. A writer of the early 20th century, he approached the subject in an honest and workmanlike manner, and he was unashamed and unafraid.
Nick Cave is terrific, of course, but he is too insincere a lot of the time when it comes to love.
Dennis did not write songs, at least not that we know of. But what is a love song if not the prose of love set to a tune?
On song … the Jezabels' Hayley Mary loves Kylie. Photo: AP
In his 1915 verse novel The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke - written in an old bus in Victoria's Dandenong Ranges - he told of a loveable anti-hero named Bill, who hung around with bad boys until he met Doreen, a nice girl from the right side of the tracks.
Bill wants to be inside the circle from which he has been excluded and wants to be seen to be doing the right thing.
Bill takes Doreen on a date to see Romeo and Juliet. ''The swell two-dollar touch'' in a place with ''a chair apiece wiv velvet on the seat''.
There's a wonderful verse where they are watching the play on the balcony kissing ''wiv pretty words, like two love-birds'' and Bill nudges Doreen, who is misty eyed. ''An' I squeeze 'er 'and.''
It's great - and very real. Like a Paul Kelly love song. The one I think of first is When I First Met Your Ma, even though the sting here is that romantic love doesn't always last. ''Like a bird,'' Kelly sings, it ''flies away''.
Indeed, love songs are tricky to get right. The problem is that it's so easy for a love song to slide into a kind of generalised default.
In the tracklisting for Aussie Love Songs, an iTunes-only release from the summer of 2011, there's not a huge amount that rises above the generic: Believe Again by Delta Goodrem, Truly Madly Deeply by Savage Garden, Til You Love Me by the McClymonts and Keith Urban's Only You Can Love Me This Way.
These are love songs that deal not in specifics but the widest generalities. They couch love in layers of metaphor so deep they appeal most to those who believe in cheap syndicated horoscopes.
Goodrem's Believe Again asks all-encompassing questions: have you ever stared into the rain? Have you ever spun out of control? These are open invitations to overlay your own problems or desires onto a more-or-less blank canvas.
This is the ultimate vacuity of the singer-songwriter - to write songs so general they become void. Urban's Only You Can Love Me This Way, written by Nashville songmakers, falls right into this gaping black hole: ''We can roll with the punches, we can stroll hand in hand.''
The McClymonts' Til You Love Me also cloys with generalities, including ''open your arms and show me your heart'' - the standard female plea to the stereotypical hardened male who cannot let love in.
What, then, is true love? What means true love in song?
I sift through Aussie Love Songs to find Crowded House, Hunters and Collectors and Paul Kelly. This is what it comes back to time and time again in the search for a true native love song.
I asked Facebook some time ago to cite the best, and of the 90-odd people who replied, the Hunters and Collectors' Throw Your Arms around Me was the clear winner. Crowded House did well with Distant Sun and Fall at Your Feet. Split Enz did better with the magnificent Message to My Girl but they were a New Zealand band.
Throw Your Arms around Me is remarkable. It is lustful in that he will kiss her in ''four places'' but tender in that he will touch her head and her feet. We know the song to be pretty much autobiographical about a love affair Hunters frontman (and co-writer) Mark Seymour was having. ''Love songs are hard enough to pull off tastefully,'' he once wrote. ''The strength of Arms is in its honesty.''
Paul Kelly is always there in these dizzying realms. His newest record, Spring & Fall, is a song cycle of sorts about love coming and going. He tells it from an older, restless man's perspective in language so plain and confronting it almost cuts through romantic notions of love towards purely physical and physiological imperatives.
Nick Cave is terrific, of course, but he is too insincere a lot of the time when it comes to love. It is often unclear whether he means what he says. The great Into My Arms, however, I take to be true and sincere.
He claims to have left a church in Surrey, England, to jot down the lines, which begin: ''I do not believe in an interventionist God but I know darling that you do.''
The song subverts the ''love'' cliche by not saying ''you are an angel'' but stating ''I don't believe in the existence of angels but looking at you I wonder if that's true''.
It's not about him, despite the declaration at the beginning. It is about her. And that is probably as close to true love as it is possible to find.
We need something to believe in. We don't need things to wrap our fantasies around. We need concrete reality. Flame Trees by Cold Chisel gave me a lot of trouble while I was thinking about all this. Is it a love song? If so, to what?
It's undoubtedly one of the great Australian rock songs, but what is it? It's equally nostalgia, longing and love. A man goes back to the Australian bush town where he was raised and feels nostalgia at what he recalls, but distaste at how little things have changed.
Yet the streetscape (''at one of two hotels'') reminds him of a girl he may or may not have loved once who is not there now. I take this to mean she is dead. I also take grief to be pure love caught up and spinning in a supernova of emotion.
C.J. Dennis would approve of Don Walker's lyrics: ''But who needs that sentimental bullshit anyway / it takes more than just a memory to make me cry / I'm happy just to sit here round a table with old friends and see which one of us can tell the biggest lies.''
Then there is Under the Clocks by Weddings, Parties, Anything, written by Mick Thomas, who is well-schooled in bush ballads, folklore, Australian mythology and urban life.
The song tells of a date in Melbourne in winter. A ramble along the Yarra, a stolen kiss - and onward to the footy. The girl he is with is so lovely, he sings, ''that if the Saints get done again, by Christ I couldn't care''.
In an Australian context, that is true love, a love greater than a man's passion for his football team. That's what I want from a love song. I want it to be plain and lovely, like Bill and Doreen at Romeo and Juliet with a chair apiece.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' new album, Push the Sky Away, is released on Friday.
ANGIE HART: Bury Me Deep in Love by the Triffids (1987)
''It's a song for all human beings - it's a song of unconditional love. I first heard it when I was discovering music and the Triffids had just come onto my radar at that time in your life when everything you listen to makes you feel really cool. It has a lot of excitement for me. It's anthemic and it's a song that, when you're feeling low, it uplifts you.''
PAUL DEMPSEY (Something for Kate): Straight to You by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (1992)
''The lyrics are beautifully poetic and melodramatic and the musical arrangement is just perfect, ebbing and flowing between intimate verses and grand, sweeping choruses before building to a powerful crescendo. I think its best quality is simply that it is a classic, grandiose ballad delivered with total honesty and sincerity. I wonder if many contemporary artists would be willing or able to even attempt such a thing?''
MICK THOMAS: Lock It by the Falling Joys (1990)
"It takes me back to a difficult but quite enjoyable time when I was moving between Sydney and Melbourne, and all my friends and associations seemed to be pretty transient: 'Wire door slammed and the night began, we drank and were together' - I think we've all been at that party. The word 'Christ' gives it gravity and then the understatement of the line, 'I really like you,' drops into the big guitar crescendo."
DAVE FAULKNER (Hoodoo Gurus): This Is Love by the Loved Ones (1966)
"I'm a huge fan of the Loved Ones and this is a rarity, which is just the kind of thing to gladden the heart of a music geek like me. 'Love is walking, walking by the sea /Talking together so ardently…' Hearing anything by the Loved Ones always inspires equal parts wonder and puzzlement: how did they sound so unique and why did it all end so quickly? They were a perfect musical shooting star."
MICK HARVEY: Sad Dark Eyes by the Loved Ones (1967)
"It was one of my favourite songs when I was little in the '60s. It has mood, it has menace, it has passion. We first tried a version of this song in the Birthday Party, then with the Bad Seeds and, more recently, I recorded it for own my album Two of Diamonds. I've been chasing this song for a long time. Like most great Australian music, it defies easy genre definitions and creates its own unique musical melange."
HAYLEY MARY (the Jezabels): On a Night Like This by Kylie Minogue (2000)
"My love for Kylie was deep, starting in primary school. I believe that people have become too cynical about love and love songs. So it's not just that Kylie sings about staying in a love-filled moment forever that really gets me going, it's the sheer simplicity of the rhyme scheme too. When you're 'falling' in love in that giddy way that only teenagers should, you feel like 'true' rhyming with 'you' is OK."
JULIAN HAMILTON (the Presets): Come Said the Boy by Mondo Rock (1984)
"It's so confident, and brimming with pained masculinity and lust. There's no awkwardness, no fumbling around with condoms wrappers in the dark, no worries about parents walking in on them. Everything is perfect. At one point the boy asks the girl to, 'Let me be a man for you.' I'm pretty certain I said that during my first time too.''
MARK SEYMOUR: D.C. by Died Pretty (1991)
"It is full of yearning and melancholy - the lyric is still fresh, like all great love songs. D.C. captures the essence of events as though they have occurred only minutes before. We feel as though the song has simply erupted, the singer seemingly overwhelmed with feeling. In the parlance of love songs, it uniquely expresses gratitude and humility. 'D.C., you gave me happiness,' is such a triumphant declaration of love without fear."
ALEXANDER GOW (Oh Mercy): You Can Put Your Shoes under My Bed by Paul Kelly (1985)
"It's a wonderfully unpretentious declaration of togetherness. For me, the description of her reckless grace is perhaps mirrored by the narrator's own character. It's not a song of lust, not of loneliness, grief or longing. It's a song of sweet exhaustion. Maybe that's why I like it so much. It's a romantic song. A romantic song with some saxophone in the outro."
STEPHEN CUMMINGS: Now Here She Comes by Stephen Cummings (2009)
"That I wrote the song does not alter the fact that the lyrics are clear-cut, an unadulterated older person's love song. It's got a beat, a veritable earthquake, which is essential if your love is to not dissolve in a fit of giggles. It reminds me to take pleasure where I find it. We all have sad little hopes and dreams of a glorious romantic love but 'armchairs' and 'cat hairs' has a ring of longevity that I find poignant."