It starts with a deep rumbling noise, atonal and worrying. A high pitched whistling sound punctuates like a warning. They repeat. It sounds more like Nine Inch Nails than what you would expect from a Nick Cave album. There is a sense of ominous foreboding, like a dark storm of grief, melody buried deep within the song. Then comes THAT voice with words that will be over analysed for years to come:
“You fell from the sky and crash landed in a field near the River Adur”
For those not in the know, the album Skeleton Tree was started just before the death of Nick’s fifteen year old son who fell from the cliffs in Brighton. Of course this would heavily inform the album. Cave and his fellow Bad Seeds have operated around the darker fringes of life for their career and I think most listeners have been incredibly wary of the album, wondering how raw it would be.
The opening song Jesus Alone had a video emerge a few days before the dual release of the album and accompanying film (One More Time With Feeling which I’ve not yet seen). It’s dark and captures the band with a string section filmed in black and white. When I first heard it I’ll admit to feeling a little unsettled. It didn’t sound like what people were expecting. We were expecting gentle, piano led songs of sadness, not this monster. It is Cave’s grief, sorrow, anger, loss and guilt made whole. Warren Ellis has done a fantastic job of building the perfect soundscape for these emotions to run amongst. It marks a bit of a musical shift for the Bad Seeds. Guitars are left to mainly gather dust as the band experiment more to create something that sits unique in the Nick Cave catalogue.
Jesus Alone doesn’t real alter itself much through the course of it’s Velvet Underground feel. Touches of piano embellish the chorus as Nick sings “With my voice I am calling you.”
Speaking of lyrics, they carry a stream of consciousness feel like the previous album’s Higgs Boson Blues, like he’s trying to exorcise what’s in his head. There are some lines though that chill to the bone, “You cried beneath the dripping trees, Ghost song lodged in the throat of a mermaid” barely hints at the depth of his grief.
Rings Of Saturn swings through next, all treated drums and weird keyboards. Nick let’s loose a stream of conscious lyrics. There’s still an air of sadness about the song, not in a direct way, but you certainly feel like the woman of the song is trapped in these pointless routines that she’s trying to cut herself off from.
A piano leads Girl In Amber with keyboard swells augmenting it, sounding closer to the usual Nick Cave we would expect. But again, it’s subverted by another vocal that makes it sibling to the previous one (“Girl in amber trapped forever, Spinning down the hall”), the girl in amber alluding to how they’ve become frozen in time. Cave’s voice sounds like he’s aching, trying to hold everything together (“If you want to leave, don’t breathe and let the world turn”) as everything is slipping away from him. “Don’t leave me” he repeats at the song’s closing, sounding more and more like he’s trapped, desperately trying to make sense of everything.
Magneto carries along Nick’s spoken word blues over a throbing and pulsating soundscape, describing himself as “an electrical storm on the bathroom floor”. It’s a nightmare described by David Lynch, allusions of blood, vomit, stars and love all scattering themselves throughout the song. The album is certainly fighting for the title of Cave’s most nonlinear and visceral yet.
Jazz drum loops rise and fall through Anthrocene. There’s a kind of primal feel to it, the bass lines constant and pushing the song along in absence of a steady beat, almost like a soundtrack to his suffering.
I Need You pulls itself together around a John Carpenter 80’s synth line. It’s video shows a visibly tired and exhausted Cave working on the song in the studio with the other Bad Seeds. Lyrically it feels the most direct and linear from Cave. Again, his voice sounds delicate without being weak. “I will miss you when you’re gone, I’ll miss you when you’re gone away forever” he sings, “Nothing really matters, Nothing really matters when the one you love is gone”. You can’t help but feel the tangible grief. I’ve always regarded Into My Arms as his most personal and direct song but this has surpassed it.
Distant Sky breaks the pattern by having Nick duet with Else Torpe, trading verses off each other, their voices complimenting each other perfectly both vocally and lyrically. Nick comes across as lost and sounding like he’s about to give up (“They told us our dreams would outlive us, They told us our gods would outlive us, But they lied”), a broken shell, angry and bitter at what he’s lost whilst Else trys to offer something along the lines of hope (“See the sun, See It Rising, See it rising, Rising in your eyes”).
The closing Skeleton Tree sounds the closest to a traditional Nick Cave song. It’s almost like he’s trying to return back to his life after everything he’s gone through on the album. There are still moments where he’s still dealing with his loss (“In the window, a candle”) but he’s reaching out to those around him (“I called out, I called out, Right across the sea”). The closing coda of “and it’s alright now” repeated and harmonised with other voices until it fades offers some sense of closure, especially after everything the listener has gone through.
The album leaves you emotionally spent. It’s the sound of a man howling away at his loss, trying to make sense of his changed world. They’re hymns to his pain and grief, sung to a God he believes has abandoned him. No God could be party to this, they couldn’t be this cruel. It’s an album for those moments of reflection when you’re alone, hoping to find some peace in all the chaos. I just hope that Nick and his family can find theirs.
Australian Nick Cave has slowly gained iconic status over the years. From singing love songs dripping in darkness to gaining chart success by singing about bashing Kylie Minogue’s head in with a rock, Nick’s career has always worn it’s own path. Drawing from sources like caberet, punk, blues, jazz and the Bible, his work has gained acceptance for following his own muse. Providing the musical backbone to his work are the Bad Seeds, an ever evolving cast of musicians who help flesh his work.
My first introduction to Nick Cave was back in the early 90’s when MTV actually played music (a novel concept, I know). I was watching a show called 120 Minutes that focused on alternative music. At the time I loved rock and metal but felt like musical palate needed expanding. This particular week Henry Rollins was the guest host. I was a huge fan of Rollins and had started reading some of his books. He said he was going to introduce one of his favourite songs by one of his favourite artists. He then showed a video featuring a scrawny Australian goth singing a duet with a startled looking German whilst dressed as priests in a row boat. This was certainly different to what I was used to.
The song was The Weeping Song and it immediately triggered a musical love affair that would endure over the years.
The Good Son was the first Nick Cave album I heard. I found a copy in the local library. I don’t quite know what I was expecting from it. Opening song Foi Na Cruz was unlike anything I’d heard since studying Brecht at college. The title track was something my rock fan brain could kind of understand. The Weeping Song tells the story of a questioning son and his father. The song mines a deep river of grief that is quite haunting, something the the tongue in cheek video completely ignores. It’s remained one of my favourites since.
Then comes The Ship Song, a love song that hits you like a thunderbolt. It’s simple yet so effective. His words speak of a longing for someome that is both touching and heat warming. Cave has written at length about the power of the love song and this, to me, is about as perfect as it gets. The song has also been covered by Pearl Jam and Amanda Palmer. Hell, even I’ve managed to pay tribute to this song.
People seem to be put off by Nick Cave by the way he sings and how the Bad Seeds deconstruct how a song is done. They’re wrong in these regards. His voice comes across as a soothing croon, infused with Sinatra as much as Cohen. Cave is a unique entity. There is a deepness that runs deep through his songs as they work their way to your soul and your heart. The Bad Seeds are one of music’s greatest backing bands. Yes, their approach can be somewhat unorthodox at times but they play perfect musical accompaniment to the lyrics. The Bad Seeds are vital in this respect. These aren’t designed as cheap pop throwaway ballads, these are songs for life.
His new album, Skeleton Tree has just been released, as well as the accompanying documentary One More Time With Feeling. I thought this was an appropriate time to look back three of his albums as he came into the general public eye back in the nineties, a time where you could actually see him on Top Of The Pops.
Let Love In
Let Love In was a breakthrough album for Nick and his troop. It was a case of right place right time with this album. The album opens and closes with different versions of the song Do You Love Me? which sets the tone perfectly. Opening with a shuffling jazz croon, Nick dances his way through the ten tracks. Loverman cuts a brutal figure, the darker side of love, setting a tone that he would revisit with the next album’s Stagger Lee. The promotional video sees the band hypnotised and performing strange acts, quite possibly the perfect Nick Cave video.
Red Right Hand has appeared petty much everywhere. It’s a song most people will know even if they don’t think they’ve heard Nick Cave before, appearing in The X-Files and becoming the unofficial theme to the Scream series of films. Recently it’s become the theme to the BBC show Peaky Blinders, a marriage made in musical heaven. The Red Right Hand of the song’s title refers to a passage in Milton‘s Paradise Lost, describing God’s vengeful side (there is a lot of biblical imagery in Nick’s work).
I Let Love In is probably the album’s most upbeat song whilst hinting at the darker side of love. This is certainly one of his strong points. He takes the notion of something that should be relatively sweet (the love ballad) and infused it with sourness and dark imagery and themes worthy of Gothic writers like Shelley. In fact, you can listen to Nick lecture on the love song here.
The album opens and closes with Do You Love Me? (parts one and two respectively). Both are totally different to each other whilst still keeping a distant genetic link to each other. It’s worth pointing out the opening song’s promo video which features the band cavorting around like they’re at some bizarre disco, a sign of Cave’s under appreciated and sometimes bizarre sense of humour.
Murder Ballads became a commercial and critical high point for Nick’s career, partially helped by his ‘hit single’ with Kylie Minogue that got a few people talking. But it’s also possibly the perfect starting point for new comers as it covers pretty much every facet of his work. It includes Cave takes on some traditional murder ballads (normally associated to folk music) and his own songs, some that had been sitting around for several years waiting for a suitable demented home before being released.
The album opens with Song Of Joy, a title dripping in blood and irony as Nick intoned the words “Have mercy on me sir…..” at it’s opening. The lyrics on the album are examples of his narrative skills, each song containing it’s own self contained story. Song Of Joy follows the story of a physician who, whilst visiting a sick friend, returns home one night to find his wife and two daughters brutally murdered. It’s not the cheeriest or uplifting album opening but it sets out the album’s intentions perfectly.
Stagger Lee, well, staggers up next, a take on a traditional song. It’s been one of my favourites since it’s release. It tells the tale of Stagger Lee who walks into the Bucket Of Blood, a bar, and engages the barman in conversation before murdering it’s occupants. The song is driven along by a muted staccato guitar part that perfectly sits alongside the spat out lyrics before it all descends into a cacophony of noise, all squealing guitar and screams. Again, the video has it’s tongue firmly planted in it’s cheek as Nick dances and jabs his finger at the screen whilst wearing a skin tight pink boy band tshirt.
After the song’s violence, the more gentler Henry Lee follows it up. In this traditional folk song, the title character is stabbed and killed by his lover, in this song played by PJ Harvey who became Nick’s lover and focus for his next album.
Lovely Creature appears next and, to be honest, is quickly forgotten especially as the string section heralding the next song start. Cave duetting with Kylie Minogue on Where The Wild Roses Grow caused a lot of press at the time as Miss Minogue was well known as the star of Australian soap opera ‘Neighbours‘ as well the singer of disposable pop songs. In the song Nick and Kylie trade verses with each each other. If it wasn’t for the fact that album is called Murder Ballads you wouldn’t be expecting the end as Nick’s character violently murders Elisa Day (Kylie’s character) after a short but intense love affair. Again, there’s no happy ending.
The Curse Of Millhaven is an almost comedic cabaret influenced ditty that takes the relatively sedate death count of the previous songs and creates a full blown massacre as fifteen year old Lottie goes on a major killing spree, knocking off victim after victim in the small town of Millhaven. In fact the teenage psychopath even owns up to more murders and a major act of arson after she’s caught. “All God’s children they all got to die” sings Nick/Lottie for the song’s chorus. And who can’t smile at the line “It’s Rorschach and Prozac and everything is groovy”?
The warning tale The Kindness Of Strangers comes and goes without leaving much impression. It’s a real shame that an album that has some fantastic songs on has some that really dip for me. Crow Jane swaggers in, all walking bass lines and sparse guitar and drums. At least it’s a bit more musically interesting than the previous song.
If it’s one thing I’ve learned from this album it’s beware of bars that Nick Cave sings about. O’Malley’s Bar features the song’s unnamed protagonist killing it’s occupants one by one and in great detail. It’s worth the price of the album alone and at almost fifteen minutes long it certainly provides the perfect canvas for his murderous narrative. Each vocal line is perfectly placed for maximum impact. The song is great fun, a real sense of gallow humour courses through the song. In fact you feel kind of sad when he’s caught and driven away at the end of the song. It’s a fantastic take but is possibly outshone by the version on his b-sides collection where it’s broken into three parts for a radio session.
The album closes with a take on Bob Dylan‘s Death Is Not The End (Live), an ensemble of vocalists taking turns with the song’s lines. It acts as the ideal way to close the album out, sedate and reverential with a feeling that the vocalists were all giggling as they finished singing their lines.
“Just remember that death is not the end“
The Boatman’s Call
For their tenth album, Nick and the Bad Seeds had a tough act to follow. Murder Ballads had seen his star rise to what many thought was a peak. Where could he take his audience now? The answer would give us a sparse and intimate collection of songs. Sometimes they’re so personal the listener feels like we’re intruding.
The album is often seen as Nick’s love letter to PJ Harvey, with whom he’d shared a brief relationship with, but it also seems directed to Viviane Carneiro who Nick was married to and with who they both share a son. It’s an album about love, being in love, and love lost. It’s almost spiritual in places with what he is trying to say as an artist.
If you were expecting Murder Ballads Part II you’d be completely off course. The previous album was a cacophony at times and The Boatman’s Call is the complete opposites. There’s space in the songs and a dynamic that let’s the song’s breathe. The piano weaves it way around lyrics that reach deep into your soul and ask you questions you may be afraid to answer.
It opens with the gentle, understated Into My Arms, a sparse piano led ballad. “I don’t believe in an interventionist God” intones Nick to his unnamed recipient, “But I know, darling, that you do.” The song (and it’s accompanying video) are simple, direct and very moving. It’s quite possibly the perfect love song as Nick describes what he would do for this person and what they meanto him. It could be about a lover, child, friend. It’s ambiguity means it’s incredibly relatable to and can be interpreted in various ways (he performed it at the funeral of his friend and INXS frontman Michael Hutchence).
The full band strike up on the next song, Lime Tree Arbour. Again, the pace is gentle and there’s something comforting about the song. The mix allows all the musicians space to play without clutter. Nothing feels out of place.
If you had to pick artists who would never appear on a kids film soundtrack, Nick Cave would appear on that list. However, People Ain’t No Good appears in the film Shrek 2. Again, the song is gentle and bare in it’s arrangement, brushed drums gently ushering the song along as Nick sings the song’s title as a chorus.
Brompton Oratory starts with what sounds like the sound of a muted drum machine but it’s no dance song. Again it’s sedate. Where before an album like this would bring a lustier Nick to the fore we find a more mature Nick singing and performing with the Bad Seeds following him.
There Is A Kingdom contains the only real carnal act in the album around a song that feels almost like a hymn, especially in the chorus (“There is a Kingdom and there is a king”).
Second single (Are You) The One I’ve Been Waiting For? carries on the sedate pace of the album and is the perfect delicate partner to Into My Arms. It’s not an album of big, sing along choruses. It’s the kind of album you listen and grow along with.
Where Do We Go Now But Nowhere? follows the same themes and pacing of previous tracks before we come to West Country Girl, a song so blatantly about PJ Harvey that she immediately comes to mind as soon as you hear it. Black Hair is the same. The lyrics are pure love songs to her, songs of longing and almost worship. Black Hair could even be described as sensual in the way Cave draws the imagery to your mind.
The closing trio of Idiot Prayer, Far From Me and Green Eyes finish off the album without deviating from the formula that Cave and the other Bad Seeds have laid down over the previous album tracks, their lyrics reading like romantic Gothic poetry (in the classical literature sense). There are no noisy tracks that you would expect from previous albums. This is the sound of Nick Cave starting to grow into a respected singer and songwriter. This is someone accepting getting older and accepting who they are.
In the years after that Nick would continue to release some amazing work. The Bad Seeds would remain in a slight state of flux with both guitarists Blixa Bargeld and Mick Harvey eventually leaving the band allowing Warren Ellis, the band’s violinist (and member of the Dirty Three) to step up to become Nick’s musical foil. Warren brings and new sense of chaos to the Bad Seeds music, creating a whole range of noise and melody with various stringed instruments.
Nick’s new album could be his most poignant and personal to date, with recording starting just before his young son’s accidental health. But he’s always dealt wth loss and heartbreak in his work. I just hope that people don’t view it with ghoulish relish. This is the continued work of a man who dares to bare his soul.