While shell-shocked fans recover from Nick Cave’s recent live shows – pounding Old Testament fucks of thunder and high drama that have seen the re-modeled Bad Seeds at their absolute peak – there’s another side to the dark overlord of which we perhaps need reminding. Away from the stage-stalking, crotch-in-the-face thrashes of black lightning that have struck both theatres and festivals over the last year there’s an aspect to Cave’s work that deals more in sadness and romance than violence and sex, expresses the subtleties of pain over the grandiosity of tragedy. It’s the aspect of the artist you’ll remember from The Boatman’s Call and No More Shall We Part, a bruised black flower writhing among the thorns of an emotional rose bushes of his own making. Here on this almost ‘unplugged’ collection captured live in California in April of this year we get a prime, breathing example of this incarnation.
Cave the balladeer remains a beast, but a beautiful one – his crackle, croak and croon combo are delicious and intended to be devoured on opener ‘Higgs Boson Blues’. Every quiver and every declamation reaches deep inside the ear drum, then rests there. Stripped down to an acoustic-based five piece (“Robert Johnson with a ten dollar guitar” as Cave intones) it’s easy to savour Warren Ellis’ tenor guitar scrapes, Jim Sclavunos’ simple, effective percussion, Martyn Casey’s precise, humming bass and Barry Adamson’s ominous organ (wa-hey!) as they punctuate the often confused poetry – Hanna Montana and Miley Cyrus melting into a world where “Flaming trees lined the streets.”
There are songs here reinterpreted slightly to fit the format, then those that need full reinvention and finally, least interestingly, those that it seems are included only because they are written and usually performed in line with the bare-bones remit.
Of the former it’s ‘Stranger Than Kindness’ that stands out, a skeletal strike through the Your Funeral... My Trial classic that has lost none of its sordid, Germanic gloom – Cave’s bedraggled vocal boasting some of his most evocative imagery – “The gaunt fruit of passion/It dies in the light.” In this reading the chorus is a sallow collapse rather than a rousing scream and it’s all the more enthralling and inviting for it. “Tell me I’m dirty” cries Cave. We know he doesn’t really need telling.
Of the reworked mention must be made of ‘The Mercy Seat’. Long an intense, epic live favourite, here its crow’s wings gliding instead of furiously flapping, subtle bass, piano and Cave’s cliff-edge baritone delivered with crawl-through-glass slowness and precision. The condemned prisoner no longer rages with arrogance, this new arrangement seeming to fill the character with unspoken regret. While it may have always been one of his most acutely frightening songs, it’s now an altogether more insidious being – no longer a killer on the streets, now the psychopath you find sat at the edge of your bed in the dark. It’s almost too personal for comfort.
Of the more lazily selected such as the beautiful but slight ‘And No More Shall We Part’ and the frankly terrible ‘Wide Lovely Eyes’ from this year’s largely excellent Push The Sky Away album there’s little to note but their suitability to the format and the fact that even at half power Cave has a compelling talent.
Elsewhere ‘Mermaids’ breaks out the instantly infamous “I was the match that fired up her snatch” line with fervour and is an anthemic beast even in pruned form while ‘People Ain’t No Good’ remains the only of Cave’s songs to deal in cynicism (hard, cold and death-hungry he might be at times– but his characters are more often destroyed by hope than anything else) and it is as glorious, as drenched to the bone in melancholy as one needs it to be. It rests on your wilting shoulder like a beloved drunk and forces a sigh from your mouth. It’s borderline elemental.
The set closes with the only ragged, raucous run-through of the night – ‘Jack the Ripper’ – Cave asking various band members 'What are the chords?' then hilariously 'What key is it in?' before instructing 'Hammer it, Jim.' It’s a backroom party that turns into a brawl – Cave briefly re-assuming the role of the satanic snake, drenched in sweat, decked out in black, the issue of a biblical serpent – murdering girlfriends in the name of the Lord since forever. The Seeds abandon themselves to the fury and we’re back to where we were before the record began – marveling at this lithe, ferocious set of creatures.
“We all know the story of the viper…” - Well, there are (at least) two versions, and it’s good to know both sides.
8Matthew Slaughter's Score