Nick Cave, like Narcissus or Miley Cyrus, is a myth. But he's a myth who thinks about myths, writes about them, knows how they work, and builds this knowledge into each new layer of the myth he's becoming. In this he's like a number of poet-musicians of a waning era: Bob Dylan and Neil Young, yeah, but also the beat poets, the blues singers, all the prophet-emulators, the storytellers who slide themselves into their tales. Many consider him gothic and gloomy. It would be more precise to say that he makes somberness comfortable and seductive because he licenses his listeners to affirm the widely unsayable—that depression is a mode of seeing the world for the boring and empty grind that it often really is. The self-aware myth knows that desire and disappointment are dialectically linked, that catharsis is the rare and gorgeous field of light between them. Knowing these rules lets him seduce this light into common being.
Cave is a quiet, tea-drinking person. Until he appears before the crowd, it's hard to remember that he was at a very young age one of the most ferocious punk singers fronting one of the most ferocious punk bands of the '80s. At one point, as Cave peruses a series of photographs documenting a Birthday Party show during which a German gentleman micturated on his bassist, we are reminded of this. Many people feel, during their teenage years and well after, a desperate need to be somebody else—and an attendant willingness to do anything, to risk life and limb, in trying for the satisfaction of escape. (I think the Rolling Stones wrote a song about this.) Few have documented this need so fully as Cave, and few reflect so intelligently upon it. The contrast between Cave then and Cave now still motivates much internet hate. But it's a lovely occasion for reflection—his and ours.
"20,000 Days on Earth" ends with a perfect performance at the Sydney Opera House of two of Cave's songs. He gazes into the eyes of the audience and finds life. They look at his and find life too. But the whole lifeworld he inhabits is exhaling, expiring. Cave notes at several points that his songs are about chasing memory—about retelling and recasting those few moments in each life "when the gears of the heart change." He finds the new in pursuit of the past—his own and the world's. This film leaves us with the hope that others will follow this lead, and with the sinking sense that those who do are unlikely to be heard now.