When people ask me to describe Nick Cave’s music I mostly remain silent. His music is a mixture of punk, rock and roll, blues, it’s all in there and the only way I can describe it is by simply saying “well…I guess you’ll have to listen for yourself!”. And yet, you will never reach for Nick Cave when you are with your friends having a lovely time. No, his music is a solitary and self-reflective experience. You need to almost be bursting with sadness for his music to make sense. His darkness isn’t hostile, but a warm and safe place. In Cave’s lyrics, there are some recurring themes; God is always there, either a punisher or a protector, women are both demons and saints, love is pain and pain is love, death is power and madness is the only logic.
Fair warning, I’m a huge fan of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, so this article is pretty biased. My introduction to Nick Cave was Abattoir Blues/ The Lyre of Orpheus, a rather unconventional album for Nick Cave fans. Still, after almost eleven years, I always return to him and I can safely say that he is in my top-five artists. Allow me to briefly present to you my five favourite Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds albums.
Tender Prey (1988)
And the mercy seat is waiting/ And I think my head is burning
And in a way I’m yearning/ To be done with all this measuring of truth
An eye for an eye/ A tooth for a tooth
And anyway I told the truth/ And I’m not afraid to die
(The Mercy Seat)
From the celebratory “Deanna” to the haunting “Mercy” (inspired by the biblical John the Baptist), Tender Prey is the beginning of a creative force that will find its conclusion in Murder Ballads. Tender Prey isn’t an easy album. It opens with “The Mercy Seat”, a song about a prisoner waiting to be executed and the mercy seat is, ironically, the electric chair. The song is so intense and repetitive that gives you no choice but to pay attention to what Cave sings. Similarly, “Up Jumped the Devil” makes you want to stop listening to it, but it’s so fascinating and terrifying that you can’t. “Watching Alice” will later turn into “Christina the Astonishing” (from Henry’s Dream) and the whole album feels like an extended metaphor of a misjudged Christ figure. Cave’s songs are about murderers, lunatics, desperate souls and, of course, lovers. Tender Prey is not tender at all, but it’s a prey nonetheless.
Highlights: The Mercy Seat, Deanna, City of Refugee
Let Love In (1994)
I found her on a night of fire and noise/ Wild bells rang in a wild sky
I knew from that moment on/ I’d love her ‘til the day that I died
And I kissed away a thousand tears/ My Lady of the Various Sorrows
Some begged, some borrowed, some stolen/ Some kept safe from tomorrow
On an endless night, silver star-spangled/ the bells from the chapel went jingly-jangle
(Do You Love Me? Part 1)
In Let Love In Cave is almost demonic. The album opens and closes with “Do You Love Me?” part 1 and 2, although here love is redundant and lust is the answer. “She was given to me to put things right, and I stacked all my accomplishments beside her”, he sings and that’s the persona he adopts: he knows that he’s bad, he’s furious and ecstatic but change isn’t an option. The lyrics are sarcastic and, at times, can only inspire fear. Let Love In, however, is beautiful exactly because it’s ugly. Here, Cave focuses on how two seemingly unbridgeable things, love and death, come together. The change in tone is better realized by how different the two parts of “Do You Love Me?” are. The album ends with the indecision, sex-gone-wrong, desperation and self-loathing of a rent boy, nothing like the forceful and almost ritualistic part 1. To no one’s surprise, Murder Ballads further explored what in Let Love In merely introduced.
Highlights: Do You Love Me? Part 1 and 2, Loverman, Nobody’s Baby Now, Red Right Hand
Murder Ballads (1996)
Then one morning I awoke to find her weeping/And for many days to follow
She grew so sad and lonely/ Became Joy in name only
Within her breast there launched an unnamed sorrow/ And a dark and grim force set sail
Farewell happy fields
Where joy forever dwells
Hail horrors hail
(Song of Joy)
Up to 1995, Cave’s career has been a built up for his masterpiece, Murder Ballads. His fascination with murder finds its purpose and his lyrics create a chilling effect. Each song is a different story of death and violence. Cave fully embraces his goth tendencies and he allows us to wonder in ambiguity. Did he kill his wife and children in “Song of Joy”? Is he the murdered or the victim, or both? In “Song of Joy” he quotes Milton’s Paradise Lost, and the English Literature geek in me squeals with joy. Musically, Murder Ballads isn’t big on the melody, although this will be fixed in The Boatman’s Call. The biggest hit of Murder Ballads is, of course, the duet with Kylie Minogue, “Where the Wild Roses Grow”, in which Cave borrows the urban legend of Eliza Day who was killed by her boyfriend because she was too beautiful for this world. “Henry Lee”, the other duet of the album, brings in PJ Harvey and is, in my opinion, superior to “Where the Wild Roses Grow”, but never found the same mainstream success.
Highlights: Song of Joy, Henry Lee, Where the Wild Roses Grow, The Curse of Millhaven
The Boatman’s Call (1997)
There’s a man who spoke wonders though I’ve never met him
He said, ‘He who seeks finds and who knocks will be let in’
I think of you in motion and just how close you are getting
And how every little thing anticipated you
All down my veins my heart-strings call
Are you the one that I’ve been waiting for?
(Are You the One that I’ve Been Waiting For?)
It almost feels as if Murder Ballads cleansed Nick Cave from all his devilish fascination with murder. The Boatman’s Call is essentially Nick and his piano, in the band’s most melodic effort ever. God isn’t the punishing and unforgiving figure from his earlier works, but a kind and protective Father. And yet, people and their cunning ways still make Cave cautious, after all “People Ain’t No Good”. “Into My Arms” is too beautiful in its simplicity and is a classic love song. The album is full of faith and devotion and religious motifs that cannot be ignored. No More Shall We Part (2001) is equally peaceful, although not as hopeful.
Fun fact: “People Just Ain’t No Good” was used in Shrek 2.
Highlights: Into My Arms, People Ain’t No Good, There Is a Kingdom, Idiot Prayer
Abattoir Blues/ The Lyre of Orpheus (2004)
We could navigate our position by the stars/ But they’ve taken out the stars
The stars have all gone/ I’m glad you’ve come along
We could comprehend our condition by the moon/ But they’ve ordered the moon not to shine
Still, I’m glad you’ve come along/ I was worried out of my mind
‘Cause they keep bringing out the dead/ It’s easy just to look away
They’re bringing out the dead, now/ And it’s been a long, strange day
Suddenly, Nick Cave is ok with happiness and sunshine! His follow up to the mediocre Nocturama is the triumphant double Abattoir Blues and The Lyre of Orpheus. Abattoir Blues is upbeat, praises love and beauty. The question is: wasn’t Nick Cave always praising love and beauty though? Yes, but usually he killed the loved and the beautiful. Now, surprisingly, everybody lives and his music is, dare I say it, positive. Abattoir Blues opens with “Get Read for Love” and the same energy lasts until the electric “Nature Boy”. The Lyre of Orpheus is more melodic and mellow and Cave sweetly sings the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in eight songs. Musically, the Bad Seeds are powerful and the same power will carry on to Dig, Lazarus, Dig (2008). Abattoir Blues and The Lyre of Orpheus are an explosion and I’m just glad this is how I discovered Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.
Fun fact: “O Children” was used in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1.
Highlights: Get Ready for Love, Messiah Ward, Nature Boy, Spell
You’ve never heard of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds before and now you want to check them out? Start with Murder Ballads and Let Love In. If you’re not ready for all the murder and blood, try Abattoir Blues/ The Lyre of Orpheus.