As Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds release their 16th album, Getintothis’ Banjo tries to whittle their back catalogue down to 10 tracks, and it isn’t something he finds easy.
Nick Cave is, by any standard, a remarkable man. Releasing his 16th album with The Bad Seeds, he leaves a hugely impressive back catalogue in which he visibly evolves both as an artist and a person. Cave is prepared to lay himself bare in order to create, with his life, loves and obsessions laid out for all to see.
As the wild frontman of The Birthday Party, not many people would have picked Cave to even survive into middle age, much less to prosper and mature. There is something of the renaissance man about his transformation, as he pulled himself up by his bootstraps, matched his fierce intellect to his creativity and came up with a body of work unequalled in modern culture.
Albums, novels, poems, film scripts and soundtracks have poured out of Cave and it seems his creativity is something that both defines and saves him. We hope that it will save him again as he tries to deal with the tragic loss of his son Arthur recently.
There is plenty to admire about Cave’s work. So much so that trying to whittle it down to just a top ten is a long and difficult task. The ten that are chosen here are undoubtedly deserving of their place, but the same could be said of so many of his songs – If this piece was written again a few months or even weeks down the line, it may well be substantially different.
But for now, we nail our colours to the mast to say that the ten songs below represent the man, the band and the work they have conjured up over the years.
10. Up Jumped the Devil from Tender Prey
Cave’s first novel And the Ass Saw the Angel condensed into three minutes, this song tracks its anti-hero with “my hump of trouble and my sack of woe” as he is stalked by the devil who has staked a claim on the poor unfortunate’s soul. Bringing to mind Max Fleisher, music hall and sinister black and white cartoons, Up Jumped the Devil follows a thread through Cave’s work around this time that connected his lyrics and literature.
9. Avalanche from From Her to Eternity
The first track on the first Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds album was their take on this Leonard Cohen song. Again tying in with themes from what would become his debut novel, the subject of the song is pitied and pilloried for his hunchback (whether literal or figurative), but responds with howls of fierce independence and loathing.
Following on from his time in The Birthday Party, it is easy to imagine Cave identifying with a character branded as a grotesque, but determined to break free of his image and its accompanying chains. Sparse instrumentation and Cave’s anguished vocal make this a truly chilling listen.
8. Nobody’s Baby Now from Let Love In
A lament to an ex-lover, Cave shows that he is entirely as capable of a tender ballad as he is growling blues. Cave suffered debilitating writer’s block while putting together the Let Love In album and it certainly shows in some of the songs he eventually wrung out, such as on the clunky rhymes and imagery of Christina the Astonishing.
But Nobody’s Baby Now is a wonderful, heartfelt song where Cave laments “I held her hand, but I don’t hold it now”. There is the suspicion, not uncommon in a lot of Cave’s work, that his lover has met with a dark end, possibly by his hand as he sings “And though I’ve tried to lay her ghost down, Well, she’s moving through me, even now”.
7. The Weeping Song from The Good Son
One of the most consistent characteristics of Cave’s musical career is his ability to move on and evolve, so no two albums sound the same. His has been a constant move forward, to such a degree that when he started crooning beautiful ballads it was seen as a natural progression, despite the distance travelled since he first appeared to the wider world in The Birthday Party.
His 6th album The Good Son showcases this side of his work beautifully. The Weeping Song details a dialogue between a father, played by Bad Seed Blixa Bargeld and son, played by Cave, where the son wonders why everyone around him has been reduced to tears. With an almost flamenco-like beat, the chorus lifts the song out of the gloom and tells us that although we are weeping now, “we won’t be weeping long”
6. Fifteen Feet of Pure White Snow from No More Shall We Part
Using snow as an analogy for depression or death, the protagonist of this song wonders where his friends are. He asks “Where is Michael, where is Mark? Where is Matthew now it’s getting dark” before realising they’re “under fifteen feet of pure white snow”. While the image of pure white of snow might seem a strange literary device to use to symbolise something like depression, turning on its head the more usual association of the colour black, the image of a thick, cold layer of suffocating snow is a powerful one indeed. An incongruous video accompanied the song’s release, featuring the likes of Jarvis Cocker and Jason Donovan dancing as the Bad Seeds perform the song in an old hotel.
5. God is in the House from No More Shall We Part
When trying to find ten songs from such a substantial back catalogue, it may seem indulgent to include two consecutive songs from the same album. However, God is in the House is an absolute treasure and one that is impossible to ignore. Cave seems to cast an eye over his previous obsession with a mythic American deep South and gently pokes fun at his previous fixations.
Whereas the Cave of old would create a Southern swamp town populated by grotesques, villains and worse, the town in God is in the House is whiter than white and too good to be true. The town has “a pretty little square, we have a woman for a mayor, our policies are firm but fair” and where “we breed all our kittens white so that we can see them in the night”. This is a song with a smile on its face and its tongue lodged firmly in its cheek. The twist in the tale is that no matter how good the townsfolk thinks they are because they have managed to remove all drunks, gays and sneaks, God stubbornly refuses to show himself to congratulate them on their endeavours.
4. Red Right Hand from Let Love In
The song that has perhaps brought Cave to the general public’s attention more than any other in his catalogue, Red Right Hand has taken on a life of its own. Featuring in a commercial for the Australian Tourism Board, Dumb and Dumber, X Files and as the opening music for Peaky Blinders, the song has reached a far wider audience than most of his work. And with good reason, Red Right Hand is a wonderful noir song with a cinematic feel.
3. Straight To You from Henry’s Dream
A sad love song is a difficult thing to pull off correctly, a fine balance has to be achieved for the song to work. Cave, by now a consummate song writer, pulls this off with grace and ease. This is a love that still burns, but where a relationship has run its course. Cave sings “The light in our window is fading, the candle gutters on the ledge. Well now sorrow, it comes a-stealing, and I’ll cry, girl, but I’ll come running straight to you” and our hearts break in unison with his.
2. Jubilee Street from Push the Sky Away
Cave again presents himself as an author here, telling a story that one assumes is a work of fiction. A haunting guitar line repeats as the song’s hook as the tale is told of a girl named Bee, living on the street of the song’s title. Jubilee Street is a song that leaves you with impressions of its story, but not perhaps the same impression that was intended. A song that is open to interpretation, but still includes those Cave staples, love and misfortune, as it states “I got love in my tummy and a tiny little pain, and a 10 ton catastrophe on a 60 pound chain”
1. Tupelo from The First Born is Dead
Perhaps the Bad Seeds first classic track, was their second single, Tupelo. The song was written at the height of Cave’s obsession with Elvis Presley, so much so that its parent album, The First Born is Dead refers to the fact that Elvis was preceded at birth by a stillborn twin, something that was to feature in Cave’s writing more than once.
Tupelo places itself in the town at the time of this birth, using the storm that raged as a dramatic background. The events of Presley’s birth are covered by the lines “Saturday gives what Sunday steals, and a child is born on his brother’s heels. Come Sunday morn the first born is dead, in a shoebox tied with a ribbon of red” Even then Cave had a literary lyrical touch and the ground for his novel was being laid. Creating a new strain of blues, referencing John Lee Hooker and Leadbelly, Tupelo pointed towards an intriguing career for its creator.
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds new album Skeleton Tree now available.