The year 2000 saw the release of a three-disc Johnny Cash compilation with each disc bearing a one-word title indicating the thematic scopes of the chosen songs: Love, God, and Murder. One could do much the same for Nick Cave, if not for the inconvenient fact that, more often than not, he’s singing about all three at the same time.
For the past thirty years, Nick Cave has been leading his Bad Seeds on a winding tour through the sordid backwaters and heartfelt desires of humanity. His musical history goes back even further, however, to a band formed with several fellow art students in Australia in 1973. This band would eventually settle on the name the Boys Next Door, and release a debut album under that name in 1979. Cave’s principal notoriety begins when the Boys Next Door decided on yet another name, cranked their instruments up louder than their technical proficiency merited, and brought the Birthday Party screaming and clawing into an unsuspecting world.
Though the death-jazz rattle of the Birthday Party’s post-punk burned itself out in a few short years, it was enough to relocate the band from Australia to London in search of a more fertile artistic environment. Almost before the ink was dry on the Birthday Party’s death certificate, Cave and Birthday Party guitarist Mick Harvey had formed a new band, which, following a few embryonic name choices and live shows, would soon be christened Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds.
The membership of the Bad Seeds has been a constantly malleable thing, with the group swapping out members and growing in size (and ability) at nearly every turn of their history. This shifting group of collaborators is crucially important, because for as much as Cave is an inimitable vocalist and singular songwriter, his music has always ebbed and flowed with the varied strengths of his compatriots. The web of connections that wend through the Bad Seeds is outrageously rich, from Blixa Bargeld’s Einsturzende Neubauten, Mick Harvey’s Crime & the City Solution, and Warren Ellis’ Dirty Three, to collaborations with Lydia Lunch, David Tibet’s Current 93, The Pogues’ Shane Macgowan, Johnny Cash, and on and on.
But of course, through it all, Cave has been the ringleader, cycling through a varied bag of vocal styles and personalities: a heroin-thin, lunging lunatic; an old-fashioned balladeer and crooner; a street corner prophet; a sex-mad lothario; a heartbroken mutterer; and a roguish raconteur. Given the scope and progression of Cave’s music and songwriting interests over the years, it can make just as much sense to mention him alongside household names like Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Tom Waits as it does to mention him in the same breath as such outsider figures as Scott Walker, Michael Gira, or David Tibet. Beyond that, though, the man simply seems — to reach for an assuredly inapt word — inexhaustible. Though his body of work undoubtedly has its crests and valleys, the sheer pace with which he has kept at it suggests a steely professionalism (or at least, if you prefer, the fitful compulsion of the perpetually unsatisfied). By his own account, however, at least in more recent years he has approached his creative work with a dogged discipline: go to an office in the morning, sit at a desk and work, and then leave it behind at the end of the day.
Despite this current discipline, however, the wild, wooly diversity of the albums with which Cave has been involved makes this current task a daunting one, not only because of the sheer number of albums to be judged, but also because of the wretched difficulty in trying to find the proper basis for comparing albums as dramatically unlike as Junkyard and The Boatman’s Call. It seems to me, then, that the only fair way to engage in such an exercise is to approach each album with the assumption that it’s the best one, and then see what kind of argument it can mount in its defense. This methodology led to a few results that surprised me, with longtime favorite albums winding up lower than expected, and a handful of albums that I hadn’t mentally rated that highly at the outset steadily climbing up.
I’ve tried to excavate personal and historical context where it seems relevant to gauging an individual album, but for the most part I’ve tried to shy away from a one-to-one mapping of events in Cave’s own life to developments in his music. Such a biographical approach has much to recommend, and you can certainly do the biography thing here, if you like, hitting on some of the major points: English teacher father, librarian mother; father killed in a car crash when Cave was a young man; bands coming together and breaking apart in the midst of dramatic personnel changes; long-time heroin use; marriage, divorce, rehab, romances, break-ups, children, moustaches, and so on. But, what does that tell us about the art? It’s not always clear, and frequently requires working from shaky assumptions.
All of this aside, there would seem to be something in Cave’s vast and varied discography for nearly everyone to enjoy. If not for the apocalyptic racket and hushed, textural nuance for which the Bad Seeds are equally known, then at least for Cave’s words: he is a cunning lyricist and a master of detail, whether quotidian, surreal, or sadistic. To follow his development as a songwriter, arranger, vocalist, and lyricist across such a broad sweep of music is to watch someone obsessed with the power of language pick and scratch and tear at every scrap of his own limitations in service of pushing out, to whatever unknown form of expression is waiting.
(An important note: I decided not to cover EPs, which means that some of the Birthday Party’s finest material — from the Mutiny! and Bad Seed EPs — is not covered here in depth. I have incorporated mention of the material in passing here and there, however. I am not covering Cave’s soundtrack work with Warren Ellis, which is a decision made not as a declaration regarding the quality of those scores, but rather because in large part they are musical pursuits done in the service of someone else’s artistic vision. Finally, I am not covering live albums, which means that the posthumous album of live recordings from the Birthday Party is left out, despite the fact that the band was known for the destructive ferocity of their legendary (and legendarily violent) live performances. I also won’t be covering the Bad Seeds’ live albums. Though each one is excellent, if you happen to be curious, I might narrowly give the edge to the Abbatoir Blues tour’s double live album, simply for the range of material and sense of rejuvenation at play. And of course, as if to underscore the above point about Nick Cave’s relentless work ethic and artistic inexhaustibility, between the time I started working on this feature and the time I finished it, Cave and the Bad Seeds released yet another album, Live From KCRW.)
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