Part I of this Spotlight covers the history through 1992.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds were riding the success of Henry’s Dream when they were tapped to play Lollapalooza in 1994. At their greatest commercial exposure to date, anticipation was high for the next record. Let Love In did not disappoint. Soaring, crashing, sophisticated, and often surprisingly subtle, this album dives deep into love, one of Cave’s chief preoccupations. Less verbally bombastic and more ethereal, while still retaining his characteristic energy and urgency, this album is a force to be reckoned with. The entire thing is astonishing, with “Loverman” and “I Let Love In” being two of my personal favorites.
The follow-up album, Murder Ballads, features polar opposites PJ Harvey and Kylie Minogue, and highlights Cave’s focus on music as collaborative, combining the best elements and input of band members, and the enjoyment of mutual discovery. Even Anita Lane, one-time Bad Seed and Cave’s romantic partner during his formative years, makes a return appearance. Cave wrote an essay to Einstürzende Neubauten in the early 80s, “Thistles In the Soul”, which described Blixa as “hexed by his own madness…he opened his mouth and let out a scream that sounded like somebody was pulling a thistle out of his soul.” Listening to Blixa’s inhuman shriek on “Stagger Lee”, starting at 4:10, you understand fully what this means.
Alternately grim and funny, a gruesome album with a disturbingly high body count, Murder Ballads ends with everyone coming together to sing Bob Dylan’s “Death Is Not the End.” This isn’t tongue-in-cheek – it’s sincere and spiritually positive. Guests and band members take individual verses, and Blixa’s otherworldly tenor is a beatific musical coda to the literary coda. They come together in a harmonizing swirl, reminding us that as cruel and tempestuous as the world can be there is grace yet to be had.
I think this is a good place to address God in Cave’s work. Disclaimer: This is a major theme in his work, and I understand it can be controversial and complicated. I am going to discuss God as a literary discipline and an exploration, not as the figurehead of any particular religion. Any serious examination of Cave’s writing cannot ignore this subject. When in art school, Cave studied religious art to annoy his teachers, who thought students should care more about modern art and the future. Initially interested in the “tough prose” and “brutal and angelic voice of God” in the Old Testament, he moved on to the New Testament around the formation of the Bad Seeds. He saw Jesus as “softer, sadder, more introspective, more geared to imagination and creative forces; Christ came to right the wrongs of his Father.” As someone who doesn’t know much about the Bible, I think this is a fascinating generational perspective. Cave is also an extension and evolution of his own father. His father, who died suddenly when Cave was 19, was a teacher, and instilled in his son a love of literature and ideas that challenge and elevate. Cave recognized that the idea of God did the same, and can bring one closer to the pure essence of things. He strives to understand humanity through the lens of creation. Creativity, as an artist, is a powerful force. Inspiration and imagination are expansive and divine, they combat mindless pharisaism. He’s rarely ironic about God, but deeply critical of organized religion and spiritual hypocrisy (the mordancy of “God Is In the House” is aimed at the house, not at God). When asked if he believes in God, he’s said both “yes” and “no.” If you’re offended by either answer, I think it’s important to keep in mind that Cave embodies the contemplative search for meaning, and he is serious in his scholarly pursuit of the Bible.
For the entire run of the Bad Seeds, Nick Cave wrote the lyrics, and while he also wrote most of the music, the band was given free rein to play how they wanted. Cave composed on piano, giving everyone a framework for how songs should sound, leaving it up to the band to figure out how to actually play. Mick Harvey, a gifted multi-instrumentalist, founding member of The Birthday Party and the Bad Seeds, as well one of Cave’s oldest friends, did most of the arranging and had an enormous influence on the Bad Seeds’ sound. That changed with 1997’s The Boatman’s Call. Cave brought a fully formed album into the studio, and the collaborative nature of the music lessened. The Boatman’s Call is an album about specific breakups. The female subjects of the songs have been much-discussed by the music press, but I prefer to take Cave’s approach – all there is to say about them is in the songs. This is a lovely, melancholy album, and his pain is palpable (even when the moonier lyrics get a little embarrassing). There are a lot of highlights, but I have a particular fondness for “Idiot Prayer” and how he sneers and pines at the same time.
“Far From Me” is carping yet softly gorgeous.
Cave met his current wife the same year this album was released, and his songwriting changed to reflect his more settled and domesticated state. But, his role as singular voice within the band continued, and arrangements were completed before he brought new albums into the studio. No More Shall We Part is an album working through the complexity of being married, not young-married, but mature-married, fully realizing what one is giving up to be a unified whole with another. It’s generally quiet, but the highlight for me is “Fifteen Feet of Pure White Snow” which captures a melodic, emphatic railing against being buried beneath oncoming disaster.
Nocturama followed, a largely forgettable album, save for the blistering endurance test of “Babe, I’m On Fire.” This 15-minute stunner lists a series of outrageous characters, all linked because they are aflame with passion. Unfortunately, this was Blixa’s last album as a Bad Seed. The split has been portrayed as amicable, but fans wonder how much Cave’s more sedate, less guitar-driven direction played into it.
2004 brought the phenomenal double album Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus. Exploding with the raucous “Get Ready for Love” this new phase is infused with energy.
Augmented by the London Community Gospel Choir, the ever-increasing complexity of instrumental texture wails, drives, and seizes the listener. It’s gorgeous, shimmering, slightly eerie, and unparalleled. Cave is romantic about relationships, but ambivalent about the world. “Abattoir Blues” and “O Children” are scathing apocalyptic alarms.
The queasy “Easy Money” is cynical about material comfort, and “The Lyre of Orpheus” is a cautionary tale of single-mindedness. On the other hand, “Spell” and “Carry Me” are dreamily irresistible celebrations of love.
“Babe, You Turn Me On” is classic Cave – admiring, dark, filthy, funny – but in a very sweet way.
After these heady heights, Cave got down and dirty again, going back to his rowdy Birthday Party roots. Grinderman and Grinderman 2, side projects with three of the Bad Seeds, were a muscular experiment with Cave’s new role as smutty elder statesman. All four members wrote the music together, which they started doing on the last Bad Seeds album. This dynamic influenced the next Bad Seeds record, Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!. It has a similar feel, even though it moves back to the realm of love, loosely describing a man on a journey away from home, seeking to make his way back. “Night of the Lotus Eaters” continues a new interest in mythology, evoking Odysseus, who is then reinterpreted in “More News From Nowhere.” Old loves are revisited and beguiling feminine distractions are indulged in and abandoned.
In 2005, John Hillcoat’s mad Aussie Western, The Proposition, was released. Written by Cave, and scored by Cave and veteran Bad Seed Warren Ellis, the film is a terrifying and thrilling masterwork. His songwriting had always been cinematic, and he finally had the scope to fully realize his gritty and unflinching moral vision.
Cave has done various soundtracks over the years, and he and Ellis began working more closely together, scoring several other movies. Their partnership solidified, and the complexity of his work seemed to distill into OSTs and simpler studio albums. In 2012, he released Push the Sky Away. I don’t listen to this album much, and don’t have a lot to say about it except that this is his first Bad Seeds undertaking without Mick Harvey. I’m an anomaly among fans, but I’ve been lukewarm on Cave’s new output for a few years. Blasphemy! Oh well, we all grow older, and I did not grow older in step with Cave. The Bad Seeds continue to make innovative music, but the lyrical content has been a little hit-or-miss for me. It could also be absence of Blixa and Harvey, and the expanded role of Ellis; maybe even that he’s in harmony with the band instead of being challenged on weaker material. However, I am anticipating The Skeleton Tree, to be released this Friday. Without being gross and exploitative, I will say that I have been a fan of his humanity and artistry for nearly 30 years, and it’s unavoidable to wonder how this album will process tragedy. To put it in his own words, he changes “from a known person to an unknown person.” I’ve known his work for a very long time, and I continue to have deep respect and appreciation for what he does.