The legendary Nick Cave, as a caricature, is easy to paint; all black linearity and angular shadows like some Goya grotesque. A sinister lord of malevolent melancholy, the Darth Vader of rock who crushes the souls of inane journalists the world over with a caustic grunt and the stylish stamp of a glistening Cuban heel. But the truth is eminently more subtle, rewarding and humorous. Emanating as much dark matter as he does spiritual enlightenment, Cave and his coterie are an all round class act.
Rock star, novelist, screenwriter, preacher, forged from some elemental antipodean spring of provocation, vitriol and vulgarity, Nick Cave is dazzlingly prolific and unnervingly erudite. He and his band of merry men will lead you through Dionysian debauchery all the way to Bible belt America, on their journey down the River Styx. You want violence, chaos, and the gut-wrenching beauty of the sublime? You got it. You want libidinous lounge ballads, strutting histrionics and porn star moustaches? Well, you got that too.
His notorious band, The Bad Seeds, have been a continually evolving line up, far too long to list, and they ideally require a career synopsis all of their own, so insane is their level of musicianship, so devastating their reputation. Never was a band so aptly named. Wildly talented, and really fucking dangerous, they’ve aged like sexual experience - exhilarating, hazardous, and increasingly weird.
All starting out as a suburban art school band from Melbourne, they quickly transformed into The Birthday Party, a feral collection of embryonic but already incendiary artistic presences. They made three era defining albums, before escaping to West Berlin and re-inventing themselves as The Bad Seeds, going on to make 15 studio albums and a side project in Grinderman. In between Cave managed to batter out a couple of novels, and some scripts and roles in a few films, most recently appearing in the 2014 documentary 20,000 Days On Earth.
What I'm saying is this present day image of Nick Cave, as a tragic balladeer and Kylie duettist, is only one part of an epic and expansive musical story. So, prompted by the current flurry of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds album re-issues, the next of which drops on March 9th, I have hacked together what is no doubt a contentious selection of songs to guide new listeners in.
From his prolific and intimidating discography, here are just a few tunes to get you started down this dark and winding road. Hold onto your hats and your sacks, it’s gonna get apocalyptic round here.
“JUNKYARD” FROM JUNKYARD – THE BIRTHDAY PARTY
As we’re talking context, we have to begin with The Birthday Party. This spleen driven classic from their third and final album, before it all turned to shit in a scaggy London squat, will strip your ears of wax and your soul of beauty. Employing the lowest production values possible, it’s the free-form garage of Iggy & The Stooges with added abrasion; a filthily discordant mix of punk, blues and sneering rockabilly. Over rattling voodoo percussion, the guitars veer between cheese wire and barbed wire, a catastrophic bass thunders, and Cave wails like a lairy ghost. It feels tainted by anger and bodily fluids, a suppurating, spunk-stained mattress of a record. It’s an unpredictable, maelstrom of murderous intent and anarchic improvisation, and that’s what makes it as good a place to start as any.
“THE CARNY” FROM YOUR FUNERAL MY TRIAL
The title track from this 1986 album is an elegant, velvety, piano led gospel ballad. But “The Carny” is its deranged sibling in the cellar; the distilled putrid essence of Cave’s time in Berlin, a torch song straight from the Weimar Republic, grappling in a not so stately embrace with Burt Bacharach. Appropriately, it conjures the demented dizzying fear of a fucked-up dark fantasy novel, but is forever associated in my mind with a red wine infused, mists-of-time trip to see them perform in Edinburgh which culminated in sleeping on a set of tenement steps. It was unsettling, cold, lonely, painful, and totally worth it, much like this record.
“THE MERCY SEAT” FROM TENDER PREY
Recorded in various guises, the album version of this song is good but as with most of his catalogue, it’s true vitality is only apparent when performed live. It was composed during the Berlin years of Nick Cave, when his Old Testament imagination was in full flow and he was writing a Southern Gothic novel called And The Ass Saw The Angel. The lyrics picture a death row prisoner as he meditates on his accountability and imminent execution, via Cave's intoxicating stream of consciousness vocals. And "The Mercy Seat", alluded to in the title, is the electric chair in which the weary protagonist and dubious truth teller will meet his maker, making the song both breathless and devastating. Eventually it would be covered in spectacular fashion by the original ‘man in black’ and deep source of Cave inspiration, Johnny Cash.
“INTO MY ARMS” FROM THE BOATMAN’S CALL
An album suffused with tenderness and heartbreak, Cave had just come out of an intense relationship with PJ Harvey on this one - sorry, but can you imagine the pillow talk? - which left him a transparently broken man. Evocative of the great standards, "Into My Arms" opening line: “I don't believe in an interventionist God…but I know, darling, that you do” is arguably the best ever in popular music. The lullaby of a vulnerable man, it is simple, evocative and unbearably poignant. His admiration for Leonard Cohen has never been so succinctly suggested or ably aped and as ever with Cave, it’s bittersweet beauty lies in its pain. It’s the only song I’ve ever heard played at a wedding and a funeral and sounded suitable for both.
“HEATHEN CHILD” FROM GRINDERMAN 2
In the throes of a not-giving-one-single-fuck midlife musical crisis, and because they probably had a few days free Cave & Bad Seeds, Warren Ellis, Jim Sclavunos & Martyn P. Casey created Grinderman: a lascivious, psychedelic porn-rock blues band with two rambunctious albums. “No Pussy Blues” from the first one garnered fame through name alone. More ambiguous in lyric than many of his usual narratives, "Heathen Child" makes for a compelling listen, as it conjures Universal Studio monsters and Grimm fairy tales respectively. In an accompanying video directed by old mucka John Hillcoat, a girl is tormented by psychosexual demons whilst in the bath, a nightmarishly garish Krishna and Buddha appear and Cave et al, dressed as camp centurions, shoot laser beams from their eyes. Aye, read that sentence again.
“JUBILEE STREET” FROM PUSH THE SKY AWAY
And here we are, almost at present day, as Cave staggers towards certain canonisation, he finds himself mellowed in middle age, as much as anyone can mellow from a head prefect motherfucker into a near messianic figure. He continues to purge his most explicitly base demons and desires through the side-project of Grinderman, and in doing so he has liberated himself and the Bad Seeds to explore more celestial themes. And this transfiguration created one of the very best albums of their remarkable career in 2013’s Push The Sky Away. From the glittering luminescence of "Mermaids" to the impressive winding wordplay of "Higgs Boson Blues", there’s not one filler on there. Only he could create a song of such moral ambiguity as "Jubilee Street" with its startling imagery of prostitution and abortion, and end it with the words: “I’m transforming, I’m vibrating, I’m glowing, I’m flying… Look at me now”. Amen to all of that.
Anna Wilson doesn't have Twitter, so if you enjoyed this you're just gonna have to Google her name now and again.