In a sense, all of Nick Cave’s projects since The Birthday Party have been ways to show that punk rock was always around as an attitude or an aesthetic, whether in country, blues, folk, gospel or whatever else he could get The Bad Seeds to play. (Bear in mind, The Birthday Party were heavier than most of the early-Eighties bands labelled 'post-punk' or 'industrial', so it would have been hard to stay artistically credible being as abrasive or self-destructive forever). A stopgap covers album, Kicking Against the Pricks, had given The Bad Seeds a chance to expand their repertoire, and then The Good Son made piano ballads acceptable (by slipping in a healthy dose of murder).
Having de-camped to Buenos Aires, and taken on Neil Young’s producer (David Briggs), The Bad Seeds could have been succumbing to rock-star cliché, but Cave found all new inspiration in the favelas, where the local buskers played a kind of stripped down, acoustic murder ballad – improvising their lyrics over frantic, percussive, chordal guitar playing. In 1992, The Year Punk Broke™, they sounded like no-one else (as the sleevenotes point out), but they also managed to be more punk than most grunge bands, showing up the banality of the fashion-sense, the narrowness of the musical pedigree, the superficiality of the production values.
My first encounter with Cave & co, Live Seeds (1993) was then (and still is) the most devastating, perfectly captured live-album I had ever heard. As such, the parent album for the best songs (i.e. Henry’s Dream, 1992) has been shamefully neglected over the years… and it is a shame, because songs like ‘Papa Won’t Leave You, Henry’ are a masterclass in narrative songwriting, superior even to ‘The Mercy Seat’ (which fully deserved the Johnny Cash cover, of course, but an aging Cash couldn’t have sung the line about “a fag in a whalebone corset / draping his dick across my cheek”). This is the song where a hard rain IS a-falling in the chorus, and you realize what’s missing from all of Dylan’s best protest songs when Cave snarls “lynch mobs! Death squads! Babies born without brains!” It's the moment when he starts to become the monster he's fighting with.
Matching the opener for energy, but a world away in its piano arrangement, the album’s single was ‘Straight to You’ – at once uplifting and catchy, but almost too forceful, like Liam Gallagher missing the point of one of Noel’s songs – and thereafter the album resumes its favela-punk, with ‘Brother, My Cup Is Empty’, ‘John Finn’s Wife’ (she of the “tattooed breasts and raven hair… legs like scissors and carving knives”) and finally ‘Jack the Ripper’. Around the same time, Afghan Whigs made a classic album with the premise that all women are bitches… and all men are dogs, but Nick Cave was already way ahead of them with his demon lovers hacking at each other, and no-one getting the upper hand.
Given that the band were disenchanted by the experience of making the record (Briggs was basically lost in a Nineties studio), and have only recently come round to accepting that it’s an essential landmark in their career (seeing as how it could have been even better), the extra tracks on the re-release aren’t exactly a treasure trove… but that’s not all there is. With its drum machine and Hammond organ, ‘Bluebird’ is an early taster for the sound of The Boatman’s Call (1996), and could easily have replaced ‘Christina the Astonishing’ on a more accessible (but less artistically satisfying) album. As it happened, Cave was still going through his phase of obsessing over the lives of the saints, and the album’s atmospheric centrepiece conveys the mystery of faith (and the weirdness of folk traditions), rather than just rattling out a pretty tune. The live version of ‘Jack the Ripper’ suffers from slightly weak acoustic guitar, and singing that’s too rigid and staccato, although the Bad Seeds do sound as if they’re singing down a coalmine, which works for them. The live version of ‘I Had a Dream’ sees Nick indulging in some self-parody a little too close to Vic Reeves’ club singer. The four other live tracks are solid, but you’ve already got Live Seeds, right? RIGHT...?!
Telling it like it is: the interview video ('Do You Love Me Like I Love You, Part 7: Henry’s Dream') is basically a succession of talking heads against a black background for 40 minutes, but with most of the Bad Seeds (except Nick and Mick), Nick’s former-wife Viviane Carneiro, John Darnielle, Mark Arm, Gary Lucas, and various journalists and Mute personnel, it’s worth a watch. It’s certainly better than 90 per cent of Behind the Scenes bonus materials for any movie you care to name, in which you realize how shallow and vapid most actors are, with so little understanding of what the director and writer are up to. Cave gets compared to Steinbeck and Lorca by people who actually justify the comparisons, and it’s gratifying to hear it said of a songwriter so often called a misogynist that: “‘The Loom of the Land’ makes my womb quiver” and that Viviane feels “honoured” to be this album’s muse. The only person who doesn’t belong there is Erotic Review hack Sebastian Horsley (…although the feeble-minded snubs of a cretin can sometimes be a better illustration of what’s right than the approval of several smart yeasayers). Meanwhile, Mark Arm’s deadpan idiocy is a treat (“the line about the “fag in a whalebone corset” really sticks with me, because that happened to me, y’know…? At a frat party? I woke up with a football player’s dick on my cheek. To be honest, I don’t know why I keep coming back to this album… it’s something I try to put behind me…”’)
Most worthwhile are the videos, which are (allegedly) downloadable, or poddable. (Nice idea, but I’m still struggling with that.) ‘I Had a Dream Joe’ is Exhibit A for The Bad Seeds as best live band ever, while ‘Straight to You’ is shot through red velvet curtains, in saturated colours, with multiple suit changes for the band, and changes to the gothic backdrops, after each guest-spot from a vaudeville performer – it’s a kind of Lynchian fetishization of kitsch that actually redeems what it spoofs. Bridging both, ‘Jack the Ripper’ (watch it here) zooms around the band giving a studio performance, at the peak of their cool, in suits and cowboy shirts, leonine manes and, okay, maybe just a little too much pouting from Blixa at his most androgynous. It’s classic Anton Corbijn – grainy black and white film stock, slashed through with seconds of video where the colours (ah-ha!) bleed, and footage of crime-scene investigators bagging up household objects turned torture implements.
8Alexander Tudor's Score