“Is it better to burn out or fade away?” is a silly question, one that’s mostly designed to provide debate fodder for self-serious college freshman who have already exhausted the topic of “selling out”. But that’s just because those terms are too vague to get at the actual heart of the issue, which is not about intensity over time, but rather about the relative worth of inspiration versus craftsmanship in art. If you reframe that question in a more specific way, and in a way that allowed for a middle option between those two poles, then you could have a real discussion, because there often is a noticeable difference between art that is made by people who are hungry to prove themselves and art that is made by people who are just doing what they know how to do.
Take for example Nick Cave, a singer/songwriter/morbid weirdo who is the subject of the documentary 20,000 Days on Earth. Cave has been making music on a big stage since the early eighties when his first band the Birthday Party made a name for themselves in Berlin, and it's obvious that over the years he's lost a lot of his natural intensity, but it's an open question whether or not that's a good thing. At one point in this movie he narrates a series of photos taken at a Birthday Party show where an audience member hopped on the stage, started pissing everywhere, and then was punched in the face by their bassist. Cave recounts this story with a certain droll charm, and it does seem like it would have been exciting to witness, but we also believe him when he says that most of the Birthday Party's shows were terrible because their audience was more interested in starting a melee than in hearing music. It sounds like his early punk shows were quite the experience, but that doesn't mean they were good.
In contrast, there are several clips of a modern day Nick Cave performing in 20,000 Days on Earth, and those shows look polished but unexciting. Cave has been around so long, and has had such a consistent vision, that he's managed to curate a devoted audience which is completely attuned to his specific style. It seems like it's easy for Cave to go onstage and perform for his acolytes; they seem to respond eagerly to whatever he throws at them, whether that's an angry song from his early years, or a mid-tempo murder ballad from his middle years, or one of the rambling story-songs he wrote last year. The concert that ends the film looks like it was quite professional, but it also doesn't seem much like an experience - it's mostly a middle aged man doing his greatest hits for the benefit of an easy-to-appease audience.
That might make it sound like a straightforward story: man starts out as piss-and-vinegar punk, ages into competent but bored showman. But it's not that simple because Cave's early work has it's plusses and minuses and Cave's later work also has it's plusses and minuses. If 20,000 Days On Earth had just contrasted concert footage of baby Cave with footage of veteran Cave you would hear all the similarities that are still there - the lyrical profanity, the haunted delivery, the dissonant beauty - and that would create a consistent through line without an obvious drop-off. But this documentary doesn't just show how Cave's career has evolved and then congratulate him on all of his accomplishments, it surrounds it's archival footage with interviews that are trying to answer the question "what does Nick Cave still have to offer the world in 2015?" And the answer to that question has nothing to do with what is relevant to the culture at large (since Cave has never aimed to be broadly popular) and more to do with Cave convincing himself that his work can offer a defense against his own sense of mortality.
Throughout this movie it is clear that Cave is unsure if there's anything that he can say to answer his nagging fears. He clearly still has a work ethic. He still goes into the studio to work on new songs, and he is clearly trying to make them as good as they can be. He’s clear eyed in his self-criticism, noting when he’s written something that feels inspired and when he’s written something that’s just there. However, every time he delivers a voice-over monologue about his desire to achieve transcendence it makes me think that he is aware that he is hunting for something that might not be real. The constant low monotone he uses for the narration doesn't undercut what he's saying, but it does suggest that he lacks a lot of passion about his current endeavors. He seems to be going into the studio because it’s what he knows how to do, and he seems to be going on stage because he knows that it will provide a good ending for the documentary he wrote and produced about himself.
The movie's title is the best clue that Cave has become unsure if he has anything left to offer the world. Over the decades Cave has written hundreds of songs, several movies and multiple novels, so the filmmakers could have picked an untold number of resonant phrases for this movie's title, but they went with 20,000 Days on Earth, which is an explicit reference to how old Cave is. When Cave discusses that phrase he does so with the halting insecurity of a middle aged man who doesn't quite know how he got to be where he currently is. That sounds bad - but it's also honest, and you have to keep in mind that he is still capable of rallying himself to undertake big projects, like new albums, new tours and even new films. Cave hasn't completely given up the fight, and by the end of the film I still believed that he still had the power to motivate himself to produce good work. The fact that he's so self-aware means that he would never churn out an embarrassing variation on his back catalog - whatever he does is going to have to express his current worldview for better or worse.
All of this gets at the heart of why I think the Burn Out Vs. Fade Away debate is too simplistic. Dividing Cave's work chronologically would create a stark dichotomy - yes, he favored noise rock early on and sedate ballads later on - but that's a false dichotomy because both of those time periods have their advantages and disadvantages, and because he likes to combine both noise and beauty in his songs. The real question is one of motivation, which is much harder to answer, because he's clearly cycled through phases of connection and disconnection his entire career, whether that was because there were barriers between him and his audience, or a drug problem, or even his own self consciousness, but every time he's always come back and produced work that approaches transcendence. 20,000 Days on Earth is a flawed movie in many ways, but it is a solid proof that the most important question an artist has to face is not "are you on fire or on a slow trip to obscurity", it is "are you engaged in what you're doing, or are you just going through the motions?"