After Australia’s chaos-wreaking Birthday Party immolated in the early ’80s, singer Nick Cave set out to develop his bleak, twisted ideas about American country music, spiritual music and Delta blues. Backed by the Bad Seeds — featuring bassist Barry Adamson (ex-Magazine), guitarist Blixa Bargeld (moonlighting from Einstürzende Neubauten) and drummer Mick Harvey (the Birthday Party’s former guitarist and keyboardist) — Cave recorded an auspicious solo debut. From Her to Eternity saw Cave slow his old band’s dynamic evil to a crawl. The guitars are bizarre but subdued, bass and drums slow and deliberate; rudimentary piano fills the gaps. While the album relies less on shock effects than any the Birthday Party ever made, the explosive parts are that much more effective. “A Box for Black Paul” and a chilling rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Avalanche” stand up to anything Cave did with the Party. (The CD reissue contains three bonus tracks, including a version of Elvis Presley’s “In the Ghetto” that appeared on a 1984 single.)
Cave’s relationship with women, which was already fraught (at least as represented in his Birthday Party lyrics), doesn’t change much on From Her to Eternity. The harrowing title track (ironically co-written by then-girlfriend Anita Lane) puts the dilemma in a nutshell. Cave’s characters are tormented by desire but often respond to that desire with extreme violence: “This desire to possess her is a wound / And it’s naggin’ at me like a shrew / But, ah know, that to possess her / Is, therefore, not to desire her. / O o o then ya know, that li’l girl would just have to go!” Cave himself may not be a misogynist but this profound ambivalence toward women has consistently been part of his over-the-top performance.
The First Born Is Dead takes Cave’s fixations on the blues and Elvis a step further. A resident of London and Berlin who grew up in Warracknabeal and Wangaratta, he leaves himself open to accusations of romanticizing a culture he’s never known; however, to assess this album in terms of how authentically it portrays the American South is to miss the point. Cave certainly draws on a familiar cultural iconography but uses it to construct a larger, mythical time-space hewn from ominous Old Testament-style rhetoric. With its references to “the King,” the ghostly minimalist blues of “Tupelo” obviously concerns Elvis, while “Blind Lemon Jefferson” pays warped homage to the legendary bluesman. Cave replaces specific historical context with a nightmarish, almost apocalyptic setting that’s very much the product of his imagination, fueled no doubt by readings of William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor. A memorable cover of “Wanted Man” (a song written by Bob Dylan for Johnny Cash) offers another example of the way these songs bring to life his unique vision — rather than simply reproduce the sound of the original, Cave adapts it and makes it own, expanding the song lyrically and adding swampy slide guitar. Slow-moving and perhaps as self-indulgent as it is heartfelt, The First Born may initially disappoint those awaiting another “Big-Jesus-Trash-Can,” but it’s an excellent album that attests to Cave’s developing style. The American Tupelo EP takes the album’s opening track as its title and adds “In the Ghetto,” “The Moon Is in the Gutter” and a drastic overhaul of a Birthday Party live staple, “The Six Strings That Drew Blood.”
Kicking Against the Pricks is an all-covers album on which Cave really makes his mark as a song stylist. He performs passionate surgery on blues standards (“Muddy Water,” “I’m Gonna Kill That Woman”), gospel (“Jesus Met the Woman at the Well”), rock classics (“Hey Joe,” “All Tomorrow’s Parties”) and, surprisingly enough, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.” While it’s impossible to pick just one standout, Cave’s brooding rendition of Johnny Cash’s “The Folksinger” (re-titled “The Singer”) is a prime candidate. Cave’s voice has never sounded stronger, and no musical style among those selected is beyond his grasp. Some interpretations are faithful to originals, others — especially “All Tomorrow’s Parties” — are completely unique, and the album’s success owes as much to the work of the Bad Seeds as it does to Cave’s talents. (Thomas Wydler takes over as the band’s drummer, with Harvey returning to his jack-of-all-trades role; the late Birthday Party bassist Tracy Pew makes his final recorded appearance on three tracks. Former bandmate Rowland S. Howard also lends a hand on a couple of numbers.) An almost flawless album that helps explain where Cave had come from and where he was hoping to go.
Your Funeral…My Trial is a short album initially issued on two 12-inches. Although the sparse sound shows some continuity with The First Born Is Dead, the production is clearer and more up-front than Cave’s previous releases — something that in turn augments the music’s melodicism and energy level. There’s a dark eroticism at work on the strongest tracks. “Hard on for Love” fuses sacred and profane passion, blending Biblical allusion and obvious sexual imagery: “I am his rod and his staff / I am his sceptre and shaft / And she is heaven and hell / At whose gates I ain’t been delivered / I’m gunna give the gates a shove.” Elsewhere, on the eerily sublime “Stranger Than Kindness” (written by Lane and Bargeld), the eroticism is more abstract. Appearing as a bonus track on later CD copies of the album, the Birthday Party-style assaultive rant “Scum” is a cautionary tale for music hacks foolish enough to piss Cave off. “He was a miserable shitwringing turd / Like he reminded me of some evil gnome” is only part of Cave’s assessment of the NME‘s Mat Snow, before he imagines shooting him. Humor aside, the song does little to counter accusations of misogyny as Cave rounds on another music scribe, Antonella Black: “Cocksuckstress, and I should know…his and herpes bath towel type.”
After a two-year hiatus, Cave and the Bad Seeds — now also featuring keyboard player/guitarist Roland Wolf and ex-Cramps/Gun Club guitarist Kid Congo Powers — returned with Tender Prey. The album is a scorcher. “The Mercy Seat,” which opens it, is arguably Cave’s most powerful number ever. Sung from the electric chair, with frenetic strings, it’s a tour de force of rising musical and lyrical tension. (Johnny Cash’s pared-down version on American III: Solitary Man is also stunning.) Cave’s voice is mixed high and out front in the album’s thick, bottom-heavy production, quite unlike the spartan sound of previous discs. Even more surprising are his melodic vocals; without any forfeit of passion, it really sounds as if he’s taken singing lessons. But nothing else has changed: “Deanna” is a Nuggets-style rocker, but the lyrics propose a murder spree in a Cadillac. (You were expecting moon-June-spoon?) Although the songs weaken a little towards the end of the album, this is a challenging work of extraordinary quality.
The dawn of the ’90s found a more subdued Cave. After publishing his Faulkneresque novel, And the Ass Saw the Angel, he released his most “mature” — for better and worse — work. The Good Son, recorded in Brazil, attempts to showcase him as a singer — a crooner, even. Indeed, Scott Walker’s influence has often declared itself in Cave’s work in the past and it’s more pronounced than ever on several of these numbers. The resulting material is more lyrically compressed and musically restrained — sometimes poignant (“The Ship Song,” “Sorrow’s Child”), sometimes dramatic (“The Good Son,” “The Hammer Song”) and occasionally overreaching (“Foi Na Cruz,” sung partly in Portuguese, no less). Cave does raise the intensity for “The Witness Song,” a harder-edged gospel-influenced number. On “The Weeping Song,” a stirring father-and-son call-and-response, Bargeld takes the role of the father, with Cave playing the remorseful son. It’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry as Nick and Blixa trade sorrowful lines. Initial British copies came with bonus acoustic versions of Tender Prey‘s “The Mercy Seat,” “City of Refuge” and “Deanna.”
Henry’s Dream is Cave’s attempt to integrate the dramatic thrust of previous work into his newfound well-groomed charm. Produced by David Briggs (Neil Young), the album has a disciplined air, a direction that occasionally obscures Cave’s true gifts. Enriched by frenetically strummed acoustic guitars and new Seed Conway Savage’s keyboards, “I Had a Dream, Joe,” “Papa Won’t Leave You, Henry” and “Brother, My Cup Is Empty” are all decent compositions, but a sameness pervades much of the material. On the atmospheric “Christina the Astonishing” there is some variation, but the clumsy lyrics — which suggest a half-assed rendering of an encyclopedia entry on the medieval saint in question — completely undermine the song (“O Christina the Astonishing / Behaved in a terrifying manner / Died at the age of seventy-four / In the convent of St Anna”). However, a couple of other numbers rank alongside Cave’s best work. The yearning melodramatic ballad “Straight to You” is one of his gentlest love songs. “John Finn’s Wife,” on the other hand, is a tale of lust and violence that again encapsulates the vexed position women occupy in Cave’s lyrics: they are the objects simultaneously of desire and revulsion. The wife here attracts the narrator with her “Tattooed breast and flaming eyes / And a crimson carnation in her teeth.” At the same time, she’s a source of some (rather obvious) primal fear with “legs like scissors and butcher’s knives.” Par for the course, Cave’s narrator resolves this tension by killing someone, in this case John Finn.
Live Seeds was recorded in Europe and Australia during a 1992-’93 world tour for Henry’s Dream and includes a photo-diary by Peter Milne. The thirteen tracks fairly represent the Bad Seeds at this juncture, with the older material — especially the versions of “From Her to Eternity” and “Tupelo” — clearly showing up some of the most recent album’s work.
Let Love In is thoroughly re-energized, with longtime associate (dating back to Birthday Party times) Tony Cohen taking over the producer’s chair. Though not as focused as Cave’s first few albums, the disc unleashes a galvanized Bad Seeds. The program includes the creeping “Loverman” (later covered by Metallica!), the aching balladry of “Nobody’s Baby Now” and an onslaught of other fine songs: “Do You Love Me?” which menaces as only a Nick Cave song by that title could menace; “I Let Love In,” which finds Cave cataloguing the effects of love in characteristically ambivalent fashion (“Well I’ve been bound and gagged and I’ve been terrorized / And I’ve been castrated and I’ve been lobotomized”); and the psychotic “Jangling Jack,” in which the protagonist goes to a bar for a quiet drink and, of course, gets killed. The best of this bunch is “Red Right Hand,” a dark, spooky tale of a lone horseman of his own apocalypse that’s made all the more dark and spooky by Cave’s oscillator and carnivalesque organ. Cave is forever obsessed with his usual themes of sex, death, the devil and rhythm, but here he relocates the elusive energy missing from much of his ’90s material.
Upholding his creative pattern, Cave next released Murder Ballads, a collection of songs focusing on death (unnatural, of course) and the blues inspired by it. Though the sound is familiarly Cave-like, he thoughtfully imports several different guests for duets. Australian pop star Kylie Minogue adds a layer of sublime gentleness to the ravaged dialogue between murderer and victim in “Where the Wild Roses Grow.” Equally successful is a rendition of the traditional folk song “Henry Lee,” with Polly Harvey; don’t be fooled by the beautifully lilting melody, though — in this tale of unrequited lust, Harvey turns the tables on Cave, stabbing his character to death and dumping him in a well. Still, Cave gets his own back on “O’Malley’s Bar,” a rollicking, fifteen-minute foray into the old ultraviolence during which his first-person narrator kills all the patrons in the establishment and provides the details of each murder: “Well Jerry Bellows, he hugged his stool / Closed his eyes and shrugged and laughed / And with an ashtray as big as a fucking really big brick / I split his head in half.” This is Cave at his brilliantly absurd, excessive best. Bob Dylan’s “Death Is Not the End” makes a perfect conclusion to an album fixated on homicide. Suggesting a dissolute “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”-style get-together, the song gets the royal treatment from Cave and an all-star chorus — including Minogue, Shane MacGowan (with whom Cave had previously recorded “What a Wonderful World”), Anita Lane and Polly Harvey. With its relative commercial success, Murder Ballads ushered in a period of greater recognition for Cave beyond his cult following.
Although Cave’s tenth studio album, The Boatman’s Call, arrived thirteen years into his solo career, in many ways it is his first truly solo effort. Written concurrently with Murder Ballads, it’s the first release comprised entirely of Cave-only compositions and it features his most introspective, confessional work. Cave’s songs have always drawn on his own obsessions and demons but he doesn’t dress them up in stories here; a distinctly personal voice emerges as he contemplates an indifferent God, the nature of human existence and love (and its failure, of course), in songs referencing relationships with ex-wife Viviane Carneiro, Polly Harvey and even Tori Amos. Cave’s outlook on this album is encapsulated by the weary, lilting ballad “People Ain’t No Good”: it’s not that people are no good in a Hobbesian “man is a wolf to man” way but that each of us is alone in the universe, unable to help each other or break each other’s essential solitude. The sparseness of the music reinforces the sense that The Boatman’s Call is very much an individual project. The album boasts the biggest Bad Seeds studio lineup thus far but the musicians’ role is relatively minor; they add some interesting coloring but the emphasis rests very much on Cave and his keyboards. But while he’s excelled with minimal ballads before, he falters here. In the absence of compelling settings, devoid of tension and dynamics, many of these molasses-slow numbers founder as he mopes away without any significant musical checks and balances. Elsewhere, attempts at lyrical ingenuity land Cave flat on his face. “Black Hair” — a Polly Harvey-inspired track — is a case in point. (Built on what, at the time, must have seemed a clever poetic device, the song becomes embarrassingly awkward; Cave mentions the color of said hair eighteen times, prompting the inevitable Spinal Tap question: “How much more black could it be?”) Still, there are some brighter spots, in a gloomy Cave sort of way. “Into My Arms” attains a hymnal beauty — despite almost being sunk by the wordy opening line, “I don’t believe in an interventionist God” — and Warren Ellis’ violin enhances the appropriately folksy sound of “West Country Girl” (another song presumably about Harvey). Cave’s always been at his best in extremis: ranting maniacally or pushing downbeat and depressing into camp. Here he’s neither — and although it may have been his intention to pursue a different tone, the lack of personality, combined with unvaried song structures, makes this his least engaging album to date.
The Best of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds covers Cave’s solo career up to The Boatman’s Call. There’s nothing special here in the way of rarities or alternate versions. As an introduction to his work, it’s fairly solid but not without a few shortcomings. While the 16 tracks cover most dimensions of Cave’s work, the collection doesn’t really do justice to his morbid humor, a crucial ingredient in his songwriting. Also, it would have made more sense to arrange the songs chronologically. (A limited-edition UK version included a nine-track live disc recorded in 1997 at London’s Royal Albert Hall.)
And the Ass Saw the Angel offers Cave reading four passages from his 1988 novel. (This spoken-word material was originally available on a limited edition 12-inch accompanying Tender Prey.) It also includes a dozen previously unreleased tracks by Ed Clayton-Jones and Mick Harvey commissioned as accompaniment for the novel’s 1993 theatrical presentation in Melbourne.
Beware when rock musicians take it upon themselves to theorize their art or attempt to appropriate academic discourse to explain their work. That’s not to say that rock music doesn’t support scholarly analysis and explication; far from it, but such things are best left to professionals. Thankfully, on The Secret Life of the Love Song/The Flesh Made Word: Two Lectures, Cave does a credible job of discussing his work and putting it in a broader aesthetic and philosophical context. The first of these pieces is a version of a talk Cave prepared for the 1998 Vienna Poetry Festival, interspersed with performances of several tracks (accompanied by Warren Ellis and Jim White of Dirty Three and Band of Susans’ Susan Stenger). In this 50-minute lecture, Cave contends that all creative activity derives from a traumatic event in the artist’s life (in his case, the death of his father) and that the feelings of sorrow, loss and longing generated by that primal trauma find their maximum expression in the love song, a genre with which he’s always been obsessively engaged. For Cave, “The love song is never truly happy. It must…embrace the potential for pain” and exists “to fill, with language, the silence between ourselves and God, to decrease the distance between the temporal and the divine.” Weighty stuff perhaps, but Cave’s wit — he claims that “Better the Devil You Know” by Kylie Minogue “contains one of pop music’s most violent and distressing love lyrics” — and his self-deprecating tone help him avoid the pitfalls of pretentiousness. Originally broadcast on BBC Radio Three, “The Flesh Made Word” deals more directly with the Bible and its influence on his writing. It’s equally revealing and insightful.
No More Shall We Part came four years after The Boatman’s Call. Passing references to “kittens” and “mittens” notwithstanding, Cave’s back on familiarly dark ground. But although he walks perpetually in the shadow of death, there’s a lot more life to this album. These songs about love, God and murder remain long and verbose but Cave manages to restore a welcome sense of balance, largely by putting the Bad Seeds to better use; broader instrumental coloring and marked variation within the arrangements are an improvement on the previous album’s often oppressive, monochromatic tone. Numbers focusing primarily on Cave and his keyboard no longer stifle: a repeating, minimal piano melody, brushed percussion and strings give “As I Sat Sadly by Her Side” a refreshingly expansive feel and a compelling air of fragility, while his vocals achieve a newfound expressiveness. There’s little of the shambolic aggression of earlier Nick Cave material but these songs are certainly more dynamic, rarely lapsing into the dull, brooding patterns of The Boatman’s Call: the dirge of “The Sorrowful Wife” is interrupted by a jarring sonic outburst; “Hallelujah” builds to a powerful climax, lulled along by Ellis’ haunting violin and the backing vocals of Kate and Anna McGarrigle. Indeed, Ellis and the McGarrigles bring a distinct feel to this record, injecting the same sort of dark and mournful poignancy that Emmylou Harris and violinist Scarlett Rivera contributed to Dylan’s Desire. Cave remains an endearingly inconsistent lyricist, conjuring up startling imagery one moment and rhyme-fulfilling nonsense the next. “[M]y piano crouched in the corner of my room / With all its teeth bared,” he sings in the second verse of “Hallelujah”; in the third, he undoes the effect with “And I took the small roads out of town / And I passed a cow and the cow was brown.” That said, the only true misstep is “God Is in the House,” apparently a parody of small-town conservative America. Cave isn’t known for his subtlety, and the irony of this song is laid on too thick to be clever or even particularly funny. At his best, though, Cave is a master at knowingly holding the line between the sublime and the ridiculous. This is clearest on “Oh My Lord,” an epic tale of messianic paranoia, breakdown and a haircut gone terribly wrong during the Christmas season: “Now I’m at the hairdresser’s / People watch me as they move past / A guy wearing plastic antlers / Presses his bum against the glass.” In this song, Cave sings about critics’ accusations that he has gone soft and lost the plot. No More Shall We Part provides evidence to the contrary.
Tired of drawn-out recording sessions, Cave changed his m.o. for Nocturama. Emulating earlier generations of artists who knocked out classic records in a matter of days or hours, he spent a week in the studio, keeping overdubs to a minimum and attempting to capture a more spontaneous sound. That’s not to say that Nocturama is a stripped-down affair. Cave continues to develop the sort of expansive arrangements that worked so well on No More Shall We Part, giving the Bad Seeds considerable latitude — especially Ellis, whose violin has increasingly become a defining ingredient in the band’s sound. Nevertheless, a change in process definitely enlivened this record: Nocturama is fairly immediate in its impact. On the piano-based ballads that occupy a good portion of the record, much of that immediacy stems from more obvious melodic hooks and lyrics that are more direct, approaching their subject matter in a less complex or opaque fashion. Hymnal numbers like “Right Out of Your Hand” are among the simplest and most beautiful songs of devotion Cave has written. But he hasn’t completely forsaken the sorrow and angst that he deems essential to the love song: on “Still in Love” Cave’s protagonist might be singing from the grave, after having committed suicide or having been murdered by his partner. Despite a lot of downtempo balladry, Nocturama also contains some of the most assaultive material Cave’s done for a while. The presence of producer Nick Launay (who worked on the Birthday Party’s “Release the Bats” 20 years earlier) suggests some unfinished business for Cave; a host of raucous, frenzied numbers restore a raw, harder edge to his work. They also underscore Cave’s often under-recognized comic talent. He spits out an allegory of marriage sung from the wife’s perspective on the ferocious, Hammond-thumping “Dead Man in My Bed” (“He used to be so good to me but now he smells so fucking bad”). With the Bad Seeds firing on all cylinders on the epic “Babe, I’m on Fire,” Cave delivers a 15-minute exercise in Dylanesque enumeration that stretches out across 38 verses, teetering between genius and folly and coming perilously close to utter chaos. This wild and twisted tribute to Cole Porter is a gargantuan ode to lust and those who feel it, from “the pilchard, the bream / And the trout in the stream” to “the blind piano tuner,” “the Las Vegas crooner” and “the hooligan mooner” (possibly the same individual who harassed Cave at the barber’s on No More Shall We Part?). He even manages to rhyme “hernia” with “Guernica.” Still, the lyrical excesses don’t all work, and “Rock of Gibraltar” is a major casualty. Musically a tender love song, lyrically it could be the outcome of a bet to come up with a rhyme for the title (“I took you on a trip to Malta”?). Although Nocturama isn’t a masterpiece, it is one of his strongest albums in some time.
Cave’s auspicious thirteenth album, the two-CD Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus, proves that there is life after Blixa, who quit immediately following the release of Nocturama. In a minor reshuffle, James Johnston of Gallon Drunk joined on organ and Mick Harvey assumed all guitar responsibilities but, other than that, the core line-up is essentially unchanged. The album’s individually titled discs display slightly contrasting identities. Abattoir Blues has a harsher, harder-rocking edge, while The Lyre of Orpheus features more melodic, contemplative material. A dramatic change in direction would be unlikely at this stage of Cave’s career, but the set does offer some new dimensions in a wider stylistic range. Cave has hinted at a more mature sound on the last few records; here, it comes across in richer, bolder arrangements, the result of his band’s more active role in developing the songs. However, the London Community Gospel Choir on the bulk of the tracks is what gives this record a fresh sound in the broader context of Cave’s work. He’s always been something of a manic preacher and, although several songs in the past have had a gospel vibe, it’s surprising he hasn’t before embraced gospel so fully. The results are striking and varied, often more profane than sacred. The LCGC add euphoric punctuation to the bluesy crawl of “Hiding All Away” as well as to such hard-driving songs as the opening “Get Ready for Love” (which picks up where Nocturama‘s “Babe, I’m on Fire” left off); elsewhere they provide subtle coloring (“Messiah Ward”).
The album’s strongest songs continue to explore the sort of bigger arrangements that worked so well on the last two albums: “Carry Me,” with its hymnal piano melody and stirring strings, and “Supernaturally,” a galloping flamenco-sea chantey with a rousing chorus. Just as memorable are some of the most straightforward pop songs Cave has ever written, particularly “Nature Boy” and the pastoral “Breathless”; the latter, one of those rare Cave love songs in which no one dies, has flute and a vaguely calypso feel. Open-hearted sincerity has rarely worked for Cave; here, however, the album’s standout is “Let the Bells Ring,” a majestic elegy for Johnny Cash. In Cave’s world of melodrama and irony, the song is uncommonly poignant and powerful. But it’s no mark of a reformed spirit. Cave is as ironic as ever on “There She Goes, My Beautiful World,” juxtaposing his problems as a writer struggling to recapture his muse with the greater challenges faced by other artists: “St. John of the Cross did his best stuff imprisoned in a box / And Johnny Thunders was half alive when he wrote ‘Chinese Rocks’…Philip Larkin stuck it out in a library in Hull / And Dylan Thomas died drunk in St. Vincent’s Hospital.” As is often the case, though, Cave’s humor is both intentional and unintentional. The title track of the second disc rewrites the Orpheus myth as a shuffling gospel blues, complete with the requisite death. Cave rhymes Orpheus with “orifice” (Eurydice, sick of Orpheus playing his instrument, threatens to stick it where the sun don’t shine), but the song is awkward and overwritten. And of course, there’s an obligatory clunker, the pseudo-Biblical “Fable of the Brown Ape,” which, in its tiresome tale of farm life, is more Old MacDonald than Old Testament.
The three-disc B-Sides & Rarities recuperates two decades’ worth of odds and ends from the margins of Cave’s considerable oeuvre. Amid the soundtrack material, the previously unreleased numbers, the radio-session tracks, the songs originally available as flexi-disc giveaways and the promos released only in France, there’s plenty to keep Cave completists happy. The gloriously dissolute folie à deux with Shane MacGowan, “What a Wonderful World,” is a comedy classic. Another duet finds the ever-game Blixa paired with Cave on “Where the Wild Roses Grow,” singing the part ultimately provided by Kylie Minogue on Murder Ballads. (As this was recorded expressly as a guide for Minogue, it’s surprising she went through with it.) And lest journalists think it’s now safe to write ill of Cave, the notorious “Scum” reappears to disabuse them of such foolish notions. Overall, though, this isn’t just Mr. Cave’s Olde Rattlebag of Curios and Miscellanea, something for pathological fans displaying an A.J. Weberman-like obsession with Cave’s cast-offs. There are some real gems here: “The Willow Garden” (a delicate, eerie ballad with vocals by Conway Savage), a faithful cover of Neil Young’s “Helpless,” the deformed Delta blues B-side “The Six Strings That Drew Blood” and “Time Jesum Transeuntum et Non Riverentum,” a haunting Cave-Dirty Three collaboration. The material from The Boatman’s Call sessions is the least satisfying, much of it flat, dirge-like and dull. While another version of “Black Hair” doesn’t excuse the original, “Come Into My Sleep” is far superior to many of the tracks that made the final cut of that album. If this collection weren’t intended as a near-comprehensive catch-all, it could have benefited from being pared down to two discs. Nevertheless, it offers a convincing alternative overview of Cave’s work, covering all the stylistic points and diversions on his epic journey.
In addition to his own records, Cave has contributed to the soundtracks of Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire, Until the End of the World and Faraway, So Close; he has also tried his hand at acting, appearing in Wings of Desire, Johnny Suede and John Hillcoat’s Ghosts…of the Civil Dead, for which he co-wrote the screenplay and, with two bandmates, composed and performed the eerie, slow-moving score.
Cave took the sole writing credit for Hillcoat’s Australian western, The Proposition, and, with Warren Ellis, recorded its austere, haunting soundtrack. (Bad Seeds bassist Martyn Casey and Dirty Three drummer Jim White also chip in.) In the tradition of the best movie scores, Cave and Ellis’ work contributes crucially to the mood and atmosphere, reinforcing the film’s bleak emotional and visual landscapes. Unlike the music for Ghosts…of the Civil Dead, The Proposition works well as a cohesive stand-alone album that’s engaging and suggestive enough to provide listeners with their own mental imagery and imagined narratives. Cave’s best known for his excesses, but this material reveals a refreshing flair for understatement and nuance, with no less powerful results. The brief, sometimes sketch-like tracks are linked by repeating motifs; together, they create a dark, desolate and frequently disquieting ambience, crafted from a minimalist palette of droning violins, bass loops, fragmented piano melodies and occasional sparse percussion. Although Cave’s voice is only a marginal presence, it’s a striking component of the most memorable tracks. In the past, Cave has tended to spell everything out in graphic detail, his songs at times requiring 1000 words to tell a story. Not so here. He doesn’t utter a word on “Moan Thing,” opting instead for a quietly unsettling whinnying croon that’s as evocative as many of his sprawling epics. Cave’s slightly more verbose on the sublimely melancholy three-part title track, supplementing the sparse piano notes, funereal drumbeat and Ellis’ haunting violin with a repeated three-syllable phrase (“la-la-la”). Throughout another standout triptych, “The Rider,” Cave experiments with other possibilities for his voice, singing in an unprecedentedly high register on part one and adding another, whispered vocal track on part two, making for brilliantly uneasy listening. On a pair of numbers, “Down to the Valley” and “Gun Thing,” the music remains hypnotic and minimal while Cave sings a slow blues melody. The album closes on a more familiar note with two less troubling ballads (“The Rider Song” and the countrified “Clean Hands, Dirty Hands”) that wouldn’t have sounded entirely out of place on recent Bad Seeds records; nevertheless they’re the least compelling numbers here. Cave’s post-Birthday Party work has rarely shown any dramatic variation over the years, so The Proposition marks a welcome diversion. In the grand scheme of things, this isn’t necessarily an innovative musical statement, but it’s encouraging to see Cave willing to try something new.
Grinderman is Cave’s most aggressive album since the Birthday Party. Assembling Warren Ellis, Jim Sclavunos and Martyn P. Casey as the “Microseeds,” Cave crafts a primordial rock sound akin to the Stooges or early Modern Lovers. It works: Grinderman is an incendiary recording, oozing with sex and raw, sleazy rock and roll. Whether the band is busting out buzzsaw psychedelia (“Honey Bee (Let’s Fly to Mars”)) or working out a nasty voodoo blues groove (the title track, “Electric Alice”), Cave and company sound positively possessed. Nearing 50, Cave has renewed purpose. Rather than trying to match the youthful bravado of the 21st century garage bands, he is content to joke about his fading libido. In the self-explanatory (if hard to believe) “No Pussy Blues,” he laments, “I sucked in my gut, but she just didn’t want to.” This being Nick Cave, however, the humor is still pitch-black in tone. “Get these baboons and other motherfuckers out!” he shouts at the beginning of the album’s opener, “Get It On.” One of Cave’s best.
Cave’s onetime girlfriend Anita Lane wrote a few lyrics for his projects. On Dirty Sings, accompanied by the uncredited Bad Seeds, she warbles through four songs, including Chic’s “Lost in Music.” In 1995, Mute Records appended the EP to a full album of material, Dirty Pearl. Lane’s vocal skills haven’t gotten any better over time, but the record does boast “The Fullness of His Coming,” a track recorded with members of the Birthday Party for a compilation on a Berlin label that went belly-up before its release. Sex O’Clock was Lane’s first proper album. Thanks largely to Mick Harvey’s involvement as co-writer, musician, arranger and producer, the record is reasonably successful. Lane’s Jane Birkin- meets-Marianne Faithfull voice works especially well on “The Next Man That I See” and a cover of Gil Scott- Heron’s “Home Is Where the Hatred Is,” both of which are fleshed out with string arrangements by Bertrand Burgalat.