Faith, Hope and Carnage by Nick Cave and Sean O’Hagan review

<span>Photograph: Pablo Gallardo/Redferns</span>
Photograph: Pablo Gallardo/Redferns

The first thing Nick Cave says in Faith, Hope and Carnage is that he hates interviews. You could see that as a dispiriting start to a book that’s basically a 304-page interview – by Observer journalist Seán O’Hagan – but it’s hardly news. In the 1980s, Cave’s relationship with journalists was so fraught and combative it occasionally spilled over into actual violence. It subsequently calmed considerably, but always remained slightly uneasy and guarded. Eventually he stopped giving interviews altogether, a decision that seemed understandably prompted by the death of his 15-year-old son, Arthur, in 2015.

Giving up speaking to the press is not uncommon in a 21st-century pop world rich with other means of communicating with your audience – few major stars still submit to the old-fashioned treadmill of promotional interviews around a new release. But it’s usually rooted in a desire to tightly control one’s public image: better to maintain a painstakingly curated presence on Instagram, with every photo digitally airbrushed to perfection, every accompanying caption carefully vetted, , than have your off-the-cuff thoughts mediated by a journalist. What’s striking about Cave’s retreat is that it presaged a radical shift in the opposite direction. He has never been more open, or more available, than in recent years. In 2018, he started The Red Hand Files, a website on which he invited fans to “ask me anything”: four years on, he’s written hundreds of disarmingly frank, thoughtful answers to questions that range from profound to playful. He took the same approach during 2019’s Conversations With Nick Cave, a world tour that revolved not around music but an audience Q&A. In both online and live incarnations, the topic returned again and again to his son’s death and its aftermath: the assumption it was a subject Cave wouldn’t want to discuss publicly couldn’t have been more wrong.

The same is true of Faith, Hope and Carnage, essentially the transcripts of several long conversations between Cave and O’Hagan that began in summer 2020. Its 15 chapters cover a lot of ground – from Staffordshire pottery to the existence or otherwise of God. The book often functions like the memoir its cover expressly announces it is not, drawing vivid, witty recollections of Cave’s childhood, his years as a heroin addict (he remembers one roommate in rehab obsessively spraying himself with Lynx deodorant “as if that would help”) and the often combustible relations within his band, the Bad Seeds: one member leaves, expressing his displeasure at their musical direction with the fantastic parting shot: “I didn’t get into rock and roll to play rock and roll.”.

But, as Hagan points out in his afterword, Arthur is “an abiding presence throughout”. While Cave has fascinating things to say about the creative process, social media and “woke” culture (he thinks the latter might “reflect an unconscious desire to return to a non-secular society” where “autocratic ideas of virtue and sin have come into play”), the book’s most striking sections are those that deal with grief. He talks incredibly eloquently about its physical manifestations – “I could feel it literally rushing through my body and bursting out the ends of my fingers … a kind of annihilation of the self – an interior screaming” – and its lasting “transformative” effects: “In time you return to the world with some kind of knowledge that has something to do with our vulnerability as participants in this human drama.” He is open about its impact both on his work and his personality and steadfast in the belief that by discussing it publicly – working out “a way to speak about my own catastrophe and articulate my own grief” – he can help not just himself but others; the alternative, he says, is to remain “silent, trapped in [your] own secret thoughts … with the only form of company being the dead themselves”.

It’s occasionally deeply harrowing reading: even O’Hagan seems stunned by Cave’s precise, agonising description of the day his son died. But it’s ultimately enriching, a story suffused with love, teeming with ideas, a document of an artist’s journey from holding the world “in some form of disdain” to a state of empathy and grace. “Despite how debased or corrupt we are told humanity is, and how degraded the world has become,” Cave says at one point, “it just keeps on being beautiful. It can’t help it.”

• Faith, Hope and Carnage is published by Canongate (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.