FEATURE: The Many Faces of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds

Written for DIY

Nick Cave is perhaps Australia’s greatest, darkest export – yes, even more so than Neighbours. A singular, idiosyncratic rock god, Cave is a cavern-deep-voiced, stony-faced, Old Testament preacher from Warracknabeal, Australia (who now lives in Brighton). He is unlike any other front man in music. Even the most earnest pale in comparison to the way Cave – and his band, The Bad Seeds – commits so fully to his howling sermons on the end of the world, the dark parts of The Bible, love, and murder, in a way that convinces you he’s lead the most interesting life of anyone, ever. Or he’s read the most, anyway.
Inspired variously by garage rock, Milton and Lou Reed, Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds have put out fourteen albums over the course of the past thirty years. And along the way there’s been a whole lot of side-projects, covers, and even film scores.
How are you meant to find the good stuff, the Promised Land, amidst this intimidating mountain of material? You need a map. And, luckily for you, we here at DIY are accomplished musical cartographers. So, let us introduce you to the many-faced demon that is Nick Cave…
NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS
DEANNA
Let’s start off with one of the most “pop” songs the Bad Seeds ever recorded. Sort of. Even with organs lifted from old-timey gospel-tinged rock ‘n’ roll and call-and-response vocals, ‘Deanna’ is mired in Cave’s lyrical predilection for murder and eternal damnation. “I ain’t down here for your money, I ain’t down here for your love,” he tells the object of his affection/obsession, “I’m down here for your soul.”
DIG, LAZARUS, DIG!!!
Now, we skip forward to the title track from the Seeds’ most recent album. Over John Cale-esque screeching viola Cave sings about Harry Houdini who has returned, Lazarus-like, from the grave, becoming “increasingly neurotic” and disturbed by the state of the world. Heavy.
NOBODY’S BABY NOW
Polly Harvey once opined that “Nick Cave was great until he learnt how to sing, then he became a bit of a boring crooner.” Well, we humbly submit this in defence: the first Bad Seeds ballad in our list, the sort of slow, subtle luvvy-duvvy stuff Cave knocks out of the park when he’s not on a fire and brimstone bent. (Also, ouch:Cave used to have a “thing” with PJ Harvey)
RED RIGHT HAND
The halfway-point: he’s singing about Satan, but he’s doing it in a subdued, creeping manner. It serves to make it all the more menacing. So does the Haunted House jabs at the organ and the portentous bell ringing at the end of every verse. Genuinely spooky.
(ARE YOU THE ONE) I’VE BEEN WAITING FOR?
Moodier (and maybe a little creepier) than ‘Nobody’s Baby Now’, ‘(Are You The One)…’ is a track where the Bad Seeds get to shine. Some light brushes on the drums, warm guitar strumming, and slowly building duelling piano/keys; the sombre tone is complimented by a restrained vocal take.
STRANGER THAN KINDNESS
Opening with a tangled mess of guitars and descending further into a tale of dark romance with Cave’s slurred delivery as our guide, the desperate, downbeat tone of this song – “There is no home, there is no bread” – can perhaps be chalked up to Cave’s then-burgeoning (since kicked) heroin addiction.
THE MERCY SEAT
Possibly the most intense song the Bad Seeds – or anyone – have ever recorded. And that’s saying something. Backed by an unrelenting squall of feedback, Cave sings from the perspective of a convicted killer during his last days on Death Row, feverishly (foolishly) denouncing God and claiming he is “not afraid to die”. Really, truly haunting.
THERE SHE GOES, MY BEAUTIFUL WORLD
How about a little light? Well, that title’s a little deceptive, as the group recount artists who created their best works when they weren’t in the best way – from John Wilmot “riddled with the pox” to Johnny Thunders, “half alive when he wrote Chinese Rocks” – whilst our narrator lies on his bed, with nothing in his head. An inspired, epic (check the gospel choir!) song about being profoundly uninspired.
THE SHIP SONG
Having been consumed by heroin and then spat out from rehab, thus purging the more destructive influences on his life, this cut from 1990’s ‘The Good Son’ album is as straight love song as you’ll get from the newly infatuated Nick Cave. It’s subsequently been covered by everyone from Pearl Jam to Crowded House. “Come loose your dogs upon me / And let your hair hang down,” he sings, “You are a little mystery to me / Every time you come around.” Oh and it ends with a marimba solo.
FROM HER TO ETERNITY
Let’s get back down into it. The title track of the Bad Seeds’ debut is a raw, visceral track about base sexual desire (something later revisited by Grinderman, but we’ll get to that), with Cave howling in the more primal, uncontrolled manner of his previous band, the punkier Birthday Party. The music amply accompanies him, with interstitial poundings on the piano, cymbal hits, bursts of guitar feedback, and someone playing atonally on a recorder.
ALL TOMORROW’S PARTIES
A whole choir of Bad Seeds members of the time – Blixa Bargeld, Mick Harvey, and Rowland S. Howard – joinCave in the vocal booth for this rabble-rousing rendition of the Velvet Underground song, from ‘Kicking Against The Pricks’, a collection of covers (including a song made popular by Tom Jones). A muscular, noisy paean to one of the Bad Seeds’ biggest early inspirations.
WHERE THE WILD ROSES GROW (FEAT. KYLIE MINOGUE)
We figured we’d save one of the best ’til last. An early, and transcendent, example of the Bad Seeds’ much-vaunted murder ballads, this one has the surreal added bonus of Kylie Minogue – pre-‘Can’t Get You Out of My Head’, post-Jason Donovan – duetting with Cave, playing the part of the doomed lover of the singer’s subdued, semi-repentant killer.
OTHER BANDS
HOME
In recent years Nick Cave and fellow Bad Seed/one third of the Dirty Three Warren Ellis have worked a nice little sideline in movie scores. This example comes from the soundtrack of ‘The Road, directed by John Hillcoat, who also helmed the “Aussie Western” Cave wrote, ‘The Proposition’. With droning strings and lightly tapped piano, the pair evoke a melancholy, cautious optimism which is about the sunniest emotion you get from that Cormac McCarthy adaptation.
NICK THE STRIPPER
At the other end of the scale is this track from the Birthday Party’s debut album. Cave’s first band, featuring future Bad Seed Mick Harvey on guitar, is a scrappier affair; the singer shredding his throat rather than harnessing its bellowing power, the music more post-punk than epic rock. ‘Nick the Stripper’ rocks back and forth, in a seasick-inducing way, between guitar twangs and piercing howls of tenor sax.
NO PUSSY BLUES
If the kids from ‘Superbad’ formed a garage-rock band, they’d probably sound like this. Cave, winking at the camera, rails against the woman he tries in vain to woo, even going so far as to “pet her revolting little chihuahua”, but to his dismay finds she just “never wants to”.
MUTINY IN HEAVEN
Opening with a blood-curdling scream, this second Birthday Party cut is closer to the Gothic Rock they were lumped in with at the time. The music is a repetitive krautrock drawl, Cave sings about wings bursting out his back, and a chorus line of ghouls join him on backing vocals.
SUPER HEATHEN CHILD
‘Heathen Child’, from Grinderman’s second album, was already an insane, dizzying five minutes of transgressive, grimy rock ‘n’ roll, which Cave himself admitted was “a quest to break from narrative song-writing in to something more impressionistic.” This version, from the subsequent remix album, goes further, throwing an further unhinged guitar solo by Robert Fripp – of King Crimson and David Bowie’s “Heroes” –  into the mix.
THE PROPOSITION #1
From the soundtrack of the aforementioned Cave-scripted 2005 film ‘The Proposition’, this collaboration with Warren Ellis perfectly suits the nihilistic, sand-swept feel, with an ambient hum like crickets buzzing beneath a single, lonely fiddle.
ELECTRIC ALICE
Peppered with fuzzy organ stabs and bubbly, distant guitars which drop in and out of the mix seemingly at random, the man himself glides in only occasionally to serenade about “Electric Alice in the pale moonlight”.
RELEASE THE BATS
Have you ever seen a more “goth” sequence of words than that song title? The Birthday Party earned their following of heavily made-up, even-heavier-boot-wearing, disenfranchised music fans with this stomping, screaming Bela Lugosi-tinged nightmare of a song. “Sex vampire, bite!” Cave howls in wild abandon.
HONEY BEE (LET’S FLY TO MARS)
There’s insane and then there’s insane. This song literally features a bridge that consists of Nick Cave imitating the incessant buzz of a bumble bee. And it is amazing. Sadly, Grinderman seem to be kaput as of the end of last year, so who knows what other Nick Cave insect impressions we’re missing out on?
THE CHURCH
Another piece of compositional work from ‘The Road’, ‘The Church’ has a suitably more sombre tone. We put it in here because, well, it’s a nice juxtaposition to all of Cave’s usual Old Testament intensity; a gentle piano line, and some lighter-than-air strings float through. It is only a little over a minute long, mind.
KING INK
The Birthday Party song which gave a name to Cave’s first published collection of lyrics, which we mention because this writer’s Dad’s copy of said book is signed by the singer. After said writer’s Dad told Cave he had “enjoyed it [the book] than he expected”, he scrawled an epigram “thanks for the backhanded compliment”. ‘King Ink’ is best represented in this live version, where the feedback is more piercing, Cave more intimidating and downright terrifying as he growls “cha-cha-chas” through gritted teeth.
WHAT MUST BE DONE
This lead-off tune, from ‘The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford’, is an interesting, sideways look at the traditional Western score as the film is to the genre as a whole. Again, the strings are closer to fiddles than orchestras, coupled with some more light piano makes everything more earthy, and far less Hollywood.
MISCELLANY
NAGORNY KARABACH
Guitarist Blixa Bargeld left the Bad Seeds in 2003, but was a fixture in the band from the start. Before that, he formed Einstürzende Neubauten (don’t ask us how to pronounce that), a collective that are best known for their hard, industrial noise – bolstered by making instruments out of power tools and scrap metal. This track, however, from 2007’s ‘Alles wieder offen’, is a relaxed and blissed-out affair; musically, not unlike the sort of thing Trent Reznor’s been doing with his soundtrack work. Weirdly soothing.
ALL THE PRETTY LITTLE HORSES
The eccentric, eclectic Current 93 have been described before as “apocalyptic folk”; so, it makes sense they’d work with Nick Cave eventually. He provides his services for this little folk lullaby, which would almost certainly serve to give you a sleepless night.
SHE’S NOT THERE
The makers of vampire show ‘True Blood’ have nearly got their ‘Twilight’ rivals beat in the cool soundtrack stakes. Recently they got crusty old Iggy Pop duetting with Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino; before that, they got hip folkster Neko Case to conduct a tête-à-tête with Nick Cave, backed by some swampy bar-room blues for this Zombies cover.
RISING BELOW
Dirty Three are what Bad Seeds violinist/multi-instrumentalist (and Cave’s soundtrack co-conspirator) Warren Ellis does for his day job. ‘Rising Below’ is a perfect example of their taut but experimental instrumental art-rock, which is rumbling, exciting, and doesn’t go in for the contrived pyrotechnics of post-rock or the dull meanderings of a free-jazz trio.
I’M SO LONESOME I COULD CRY
Cave proves an unselfish foil on this heartbreaking cover of an old Hank Williams standard, joining Johnny Cash as the veteran country singer entered his last days. ‘I’m So Lonesome…’ appeared on the last of the ‘American Recordings’ series to be released during Cash’s lifetime, putting the traditional break-up song into a different context as he faced his own mortality.
DISCO 2000
Going full on lounge singer for this Pulp cover, Cave has his tongue at least half-planted within his cheek. This rendition, ironically, appeared as a B-side to the Sheffield band’s single ‘Bad Cover Version’, joined by a do-over of ‘Sorted for E’s & Wizz’ by Moloko’s Roisin Murphy.
SUZANNE
The Bad Seeds’ leader appeared in the documentary ‘I’m Your Man’ where he paid tribute to Leonard Cohen with this live performance of ‘Suzanne’, ably assisted by Julie Christensen and Perla Batalla. It’s a restrained take by everyone involved, but no less affecting; it also highlights the similarities in the two men’s songwriting (namely the Biblical references).
THE SNOWBALL EFFECT
Barry Adamson provided steady bass lines for the Seeds’ first four albums, but what he’s best known for his his bizarre, sample-heavy solo work, featured in films like ‘Lost Highway’ and ‘Natural Born Killers’. ‘The Snowball Effect’ is like a wackier, less downbeat DJ Shadow, built around a break beat, a Hammond organ, and samples of a voice message left by Adamson’s agent concerning his interview schedule.
WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD
We can barely conceive of the levels of irony inherent in a man who used to singing about the darkest aspects of mankind taking on a song of pure, unadulterated joy towards humanity. Making it a duet with famous piss-head and misanthrope Shane McGowan is enough to make our brains explode. Still, it’s a nice little version of Louis Armstrong’s classic. We’d place it just below the Flaming Lips’ raucous rendition, and way, way above Katie Melua’s.
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