Artist Spotlight – Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (Part I)

I first discovered Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds when I was in my early teens. Watching Teletunes, a 2-hour block of alternative videos that aired at 10:00 PM every Sunday night, worlds of musical and artistic creativity were opened to me. “The Singer” was the first Nick Cave video I saw – a strange raven-haired crooner framed against a red backdrop, earnestly paying tribute to one of his predecessors. This Johnny Cash cover features yearning strings and a guitar line that serves as an ellipsis between verses. He embodied the ecstasy and loneliness of being a storyteller. I was captivated. Nick Cave is a seeker, a collaborator, a lyricist, composer, novelist, screenwriter, an undeniable presence, and a creative force. A brilliant writer, he has a gift for symbolism and narrative complexity, reveling in the possibilities of language and the rhythm of words. He isn’t content to accept and comment on the world, instead working through ideas about human nature through cruelty, mercy, community, God, and love. Rarely at peace, he lingers in depravity in an unflinching examination, but he never wallows. “Nature Boy” a song from 2004’s Abattoir Blues, tells of how, when he was a boy, his father taught him not to look away from pain and violence, that the larger wonder is the beauty that can be found in spite of the darkness.

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds was formed from the remnants of Australian post-punk sensation The Birthday Party. After moving to West Berlin in the early 1980s, the band went in separate directions. Cave met Einstürzende Neubauten and found a musical soul mate in Blixa Bargeld, who joined the Bad Seeds. Their first record, From Her to Eternity, was a bridge between the old chaotic post-punk Birthday Party sound and a more atmospheric bluesy style. Cave began to branch out from music, and started writing his Southern Gothic novel And the Ass Saw the Angel. The second Bad Seeds record, The Firstborn Is Dead, is steeped in images from this literary endeavor, and Cave’s fascination with the American South, depravity, suffering, madness, and redemption will continue to permeate his work for years to come.

Arguably early in their career for a covers album, 1986’s Kicking Against the Pricks is an exploration of older music and how it can be woven into a new sound. This cover of Hendrix’s “Hey Joe” is thrillingly ominous.

Your Funeral… My Trial, released the same year, is among my favorites. The sound is fuller, and Cave’s ability to write cinematic story songs reaches a height he maintains for decades. “Hard On For Love” is a filthy ode to biblical, unrepentant lust.

“Long Time Man” is the account of a man who kills his wife in the heat of passion, and now has to reconcile his own loss of love with this impulsive act, in a prison both physical and metaphorical.

Although not on the original album, “Scum” was an outtake from the Funeral sessions, and a flexidisc sold at their concerts that fall. This vicious attack on music critics Mat Snow and Antonella Black is nasty and wickedly funny – a hallmark of some of Cave’s best work. Cave had briefly lived with Snow, and was deeply offended by a negative review. This sensitivity to criticism and distrust of music press would linger through much of Cave’s career.

The band caught the attention of Wim Wenders, who featured a live performance in Wings of Desire. They also contributed original songs to several of his soundtracks. Cave’s drug use reached a peak during this time, and the sessions for Tender Prey were fractured and chaotic. Nevertheless, this album delivers a couple of the all-time great songs. “Deanna” is the rollicking romance between two spree killers.

“The Mercy Seat” describes a man’s last night on death row, a maelstrom of reckoning with transgression and redemption.

Cave’s contemplation of imprisonment and lawlessness were further expressed in John Hillcoat’s first movie, Ghosts… of the Civil Dead, which was based on American prison brutality and the social engineering that led to the creation of supermax prisons. Cave wrote the soundtrack with other core Bad Seeds, co-wrote the script, and acted in a small part. I was going to include a clip of Cave’s scenes, but it’s very NSFW.

Cave’s next record, The Good Son, is a departure. Fresh out of rehab for the first time, living in Sao Paulo, and about to marry (also for the first time), Cave is still ruminating on themes of sin, God, and love. But this album is lush, rhythmic, and tinged with Latin influence. The video for “The Weeping Song” showcases the close and playful relationship between Cave and Blixa, and is a fan favorite.

1992’s Henry’s Dream was influenced by the disintegration of Cave’s marriage. It was also the first time the band used an outside producer, and they were dissatisfied with the overly smooth results – even though they were pushed to generate their typically layered and complex sound in the studio instead of during mixing. I see what the band is saying, but they’re nuts. This is another of my favorite records. I’ll spare you the links to all of the songs, just go listen to it. Cave starts to fully approach each record as a concept album, and the dark and driving subject matter contrasts magnificently with the glimpses of elevated beauty. It’s in turns brutal, aching, and elegant.

Their first live album was followed by what might be Cave’s masterpiece, Let Love In. Stay tuned for part 2 of this Spotlight tomorrow, where I will discuss the remainder of Cave’s career and dig further into the singularity of his work.