MUSIC REVIEWS: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds reissued
Following the dissolution of The Birthday Party in 1983, frontman Nick Cave took on the role of bandleader and formed the Bad Seeds with fellow former Birthday Party-er Mick Harvey. Although the lineup went through changes from record to record, the core vision of the Bad Seeds—channeling the frantic energy of Cave’s first band into a more directly blues-based, roots-influenced outfit—remained the same, particularly throughout the early years. In April 2009, Mute Records reissued the first four Bad Seeds albums—From Her to Eternity; The Firstborn is Dead; Kicking Against the Pricks; and Your Funeral, My Trial. These early efforts, revisited together, trace a compelling progression that doesn’t abandon the theatrics of The Birthday Party, but refines and adapts them to an ever-increasing array of moods and settings.
The first Bad Seeds album drew on the chaos of The Birthday Party, expanding its musical palette to include pounding, dissonant piano and atmospheric touches like ominous guitar scrapes to effectively punctuate the cadences of Nick Cave’s narratives. Embracing the blues more openly than with his previous band, and adding a critical element of space between sonic elements, Cave assembled a collective with the ability to explore much more musical territory; opening with a dramatic, compelling interpretation of Leonard Cohen’s “Avalanche,” From Her to Eternity immediately hints at the adaptability of Cave and his co-conspirators to a much broader range of moods and textures than the work of The Birthday Party would suggest. After sublimating the Cohen gem into a curiously cinematic character study, the band lurches into the wild, stir-crazy “Cabin Fever!” before contorting the traditional sea shanty form into “Well of Misery,” evidence of the Bad Seeds’ skill at simultaneously emulating and owning the genres to which they nod.
The title track remains one of the band’s finest cuts, featuring Cave’s reliably manic vocal delivery underscored by pummeled ivories and frenzied, noisy guitar accents. The second half of the record delivers equally “challenging” material, like the seven-and-a-half-minute “Saint Huck,” a meandering tale incorporating references to Huckleberry Finn and The Odyssey over a quick, persistent bass line, repetitive low-end piano, and guitar attacks. On later efforts, the Bad Seeds would become more focused and ambitious, but would arguably never quite match the dangerous energy of their debut.
While it had always been a clear influence in Nick Cave’s work, sonically and lyrically, The Firstborn is Dead is the Bad Seeds album most steeped in American country blues. Each track on the album shares a thematic or musical parallel to early blues, from the epic opening song, “Tupelo,” which imagines the birth of Cave’s idol Elvis Presley as a stormy local legend, through the closing “Blind Lemon Jefferson,” named for a notable 1920’s singer-guitarist who died under mysterious circumstances at a tragically young age. Familiar blues themes of jail, crime, epic storms, death, trains, and self-mythology permeate the record, as well as traditional blues sounds like harmonica, call-and-response vocals, and percussive handclaps. “Train Long Suffering” features Cave mimicking the whistle of a locomotive, while the singer pays homage to prewar performers by incorporating the classic blues “moan” into the slow-stomping “Black Crow King.”
Prison ballad “Knocking on Joe,” an album highlight, is a slow-building gem constructed around a surprisingly melodic piano line and featuring wistful harmonica in the coda. The band’s cover of Johnny Cash’s “Wanted Man,” written by Bob Dylan for the country titan, is another definitive performance by a band superbly capable of reinterpreting the material of other artists; the successful demonstration of this ability foreshadows the Bad Seeds’ work on Kicking Against the Pricks. While not quite as manic and chaotic as its predecessor, The Firstborn is Dead is nonetheless an underappreciated classic in the Nick Cave oeuvre.
While it may seem odd or excessively ambitious for a band to choose to record entirely covers for their third album, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds had already demonstrated not only a strength for co-opting the songs of other noteworthy artists, but the power to bend genres to their own will. Kicking Against the Pricks solidifies these alchemistic abilities and even throws in some surprises; while cuts like a truly murderous take on John Lee Hooker’s “I’m Gonna Kill That Woman” and moody versions of country ballads “Long Black Veil” and “Muddy Waters” may be somewhat predictable choices, other selections on the album illuminate entirely new sides of the Seeds. “Sleeping Annaleah,” which retools Tom Jones’ “Weeping Annaleah,” and the nearly a capella gospel song “Jesus Met the Woman at the Well” sound downright playful, and more poppy ballads like “Something’s Gotten Hold of My Heart” and closing track “The Carnival is Over” showcase a croonier side of Cave.
Even tunes well-known to those versed in rock and roll history are successfully mutated into Bad Seeds songs, like a gasping, densely towering “All Tomorrow’s Parties” and a cold, atmospheric “Hey Joe” that climbs inside the twisted, detached mind of the narrator. On Kicking Against the Pricks, the Bad Seeds manage to continue to broaden their musical horizons and Nick Cave expands his range as a vocalist, all while maintaining the identifiable core that distinguishes the band as a singular outfit; that it is an album consisting exclusively of covers is not a detriment to this advancement, but a testament.
Your Funeral, My Trial is widely considered to be the masterpiece of the early Bad Seeds years, the inevitable melding of elements both explored and suggested on their previous efforts. The loose disorder of From Her to Eternity is tightened, the band seems more self-assured and versatile, and the songwriting fuses accessibility with the group’s identifiably brooding, dramatic atmospheres. Applying the progress they made with their inventive covers record to mostly original material (the lone cover is a plaintive take on Tim Rose’s murder ballad, “Long Time Man”), the Bad Seeds find themselves in peak form.
An ominous, breathtaking epic, “The Carney” plays like a subversively dark short film in sonic form, and songs like “She Fell Away” and “Jack’s Shadow” demonstrate the dynamic range of the band and the effectiveness of Blixa Bargeld’s ambient, textured guitar experimentations. Organ sounds introduced on a few Kicking Against the Pricks recordings return with a vengeance on tunes like the eerily touching title track, an undeniable Bad Seeds highlight, and the opening ballad “Sad Waters;” “She Fell Away” and “The Carney” also feature generous use of melodic percussion instruments like xylophone and glockenspiel.
Although the first CD release of the album ordered the songs differently than the original, double-45 vinyl edition, the reissue version preserves the initial track order; the gesture is appropriate for an album which exhibits the Bad Seeds at their most meticulous.