When and who does it help to reflect a traumatic community experience? Should we address it explicitly or indirectly? Should we spend energy on making creative work at all?
These are the kind of questions many artists have been asking each other and ourselves this year. I couldn’t help but revisit this creative confusion when listening to Nick Cave and Nicholas Lens’s austere L.I.T.A.N I.E.S. It is a work that can be very withholding, and I would direct a curious listener to such tracks as “Litany of the Sleeping Dream” or “Litany of the Forsaken” to experience the full cathartic generosity that Cave and Lens are capable of.
The project began when composer Lens called up Australian singer-songwriter Cave, with whom he collaborated to write Shell Shock in 2014, to ask him to write 12 litanies. In the liner notes, Lens and Cave address the “apocalyptic and boring” nature of quarantine and the presence of fear in everyday life as influence on their work. Despite there only being one direct reference to the pandemic in the text, the opening pleads “Where are you?” and “Become yourself/so I can see you” echo the desperation at the beginning of a facetime call that has a failing connection.
“I was remade O Lord/I was remade O Lord/I was no longer me/I was the world/the world entire” chorus the rough, praying voices of Nicholas L. Noorenberg and Clara-Lane Lens in “Litany of Gathering Up.” On its face, L.I.T.A.N I.E.S. is described by Cave as a journey through “birth, blooming, fracturing, and rebirth,” an arc that is identifiable, if only as a hunch initially. However, the sense of a singular crisis — one of loneliness, fear, and the erosion of identity without the presence of another — is much more visceral than the ritualistic text might suggest.
The heartening “Gathering Up” has a devastating sibling, the “Litany of Fragmentation.” Sung by Clara-Lane Lens (the main voice of the whole work) and the perhaps too-operatic Denzil Delaere, “Fragmentation” is the plea from the bottom of the valley. Spidery violin and clarinet disturb an ashen ground, laid by strings and gongs, and in the middle Clara-Lane utters those words of tested faith, “If you are there.” A vision of the desolation of a soul after death, Cave delivers one of my favorite couplets of the project, “My skin is a viral powder/Atoms a lavender sky.”
Listening to “Fragmentation” I wonder if it is helpful to be reminded of how awful life can feel right now. Perhaps as a defense I focus on the beauty of the track, the beautiful way becoming dust has been described. Whether the track is helpful or not is not a measure of its worth, but I notice that tracks like “Gathering Up” allowed me to grieve my loneliness, but not feel lonely. It seems like there is a theatrical justification, an ideal of veracity, that makes “Fragmentation” a necessary part of the project.
Along these same lines, there is something very risky about the album’s bitter frugality, which I can only guess is a further attempt to reflect the pandemic.
The music feels emaciated for the first half of the album. While the reverb indicates a large, luscious space, the notes are always short, and there are few of them. L.I.T.A.N I.E.S. frequently borders on too simple, too transparent — often harmonically and melodically predictable, if still satisfying. This deliberate approach would have had greater impact if it were not for the frequent lack of rhythmic crispness in the instrumentals. I was shocked by moments of shoddy coordination and strange balance in the mixing, with triangle hits that sound like they’re coming from some kid who you forgot was only a few feet away.
Cave’s stark and reverberating words give Lens’s musical choices meaning, and the imbalance can become hard to ignore.