November is Ausmusic Month across the country, as we celebrate our rich musical landscape, and explore a unique history that tells our stories, crosses boundaries and brings people together. 4The Record has chosen Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds as our Ausmusic icon for the week, their body of work, like Cave himself, has not always been highly accessible, but certainly challenging, even confronting, and always creatively diverse.
Over forty years and seventeen studio albums 4TR has chosen songs from critical periods in the journey of Nick Cave via the Boys Next Door, The Birthday Party, and The Bad Seeds, today we revisit Shivers, Tupelo, Stranger Than Kindness, The Mercy Seat, and later in the week The Ship Song, Straight To You, Red Right Hand, Where The Wild Roses Grow, and Into my Arms.
Nicholas Edward Cave released Ghosteen, his seventeenth album in 2019, at the age of 62, he wasn’t even supposed to have lived that long, a heroin addict for twenty years with a violent and self-destructive nature, his early demise was confidently predicted. From the drug-fueled, emaciated aggression and antagonism of his early days in the Birthday Party, a band often dubbed the most violent in Britain, who openly despised their own audiences, Cave and his cohorts appeared to be on a collision course with destruction, and when hard drugs notoriously entered the mix, the writing was on the wall. Yet this prime candidate for membership of what Kurt Cobain’s mother described as “that stupid club,” has evolved into one of our most consistent artists, evolving new aspects, plumbing new depths and finding more areas of life and love to explore in his unique, grimly wry baritone.
Cave and The Bad Seeds, have morphed slowly over the past decades from the savage Weimar avant-bluesmen of their 1984 debut album From Her To Eternity into something more profound, broader in scope, while surviving the death of family and bandmates – Nick’s father Colin and his son Arthur, bandmates Tracy Pew, Conway Savage, and Roland S. Howard; potentially crippling personnel upheavals, notably, the departures of Blixa Bargeld (above) and Mick Harvey; long-time heroin use; marriage, divorce, rehab, romances, break-ups, and children, to be hitting the peak of their critical and commercial appeal forty years later, still experimenting and evolving, in a way that has delighted their fans.
Nick Cave has lead his Bad Seeds on a winding tour through the sordid backwaters and heartfelt desires of humanity over the decades, his musical history goes back even further, however, to a band formed with several fellow college students – Mick Harvey (pictured above on the right with Roland Howard on his left), Tracy Pew, and Phil Calvert – at Caulfield Grammar in Melbourne in 1973. They became The Boys Next Door, recruited Roland S. Howard, and released their debut album Door Door, and the grim, angsty and foreboding single Shivers.Over the journey the membership of the Bad Seeds has been a constantly malleable thing, with the group swapping members and expanding their number and creative skills at nearly every turn of their history. This shifting group of collaborators has been crucially important, because for as much as Cave is an inimitable vocalist and singular songwriter, his music has always ebbed and flowed with the varied strengths of his co-collaborators. A web of creative connections has infused the Bad Seeds over time, from Blixa Bargeld’s Einsturzende Neubauten, Mick Harvey’s Crime & the City Solution, and Warren Ellis’s (below) Dirty Three, to collaborations with Lydia Lunch, David Tibet’s Current 93, The Pogues’ Shane Macgowan, and Johnny Cash, each new chapter has allowed Cave to reveal a part of himself previously unseen, and so his back catalogue becomes a little more complete, and endlessly intriguing.Through it all, Cave has been the ringleader, cycling through a grab bag of vocal styles and personalities: a heroin-thin, lunging lunatic; an old-fashioned balladeer and crooner; a street corner prophet; a sex-mad lothario; a heartbroken mumbler; and a roguish raconteur. Given the scope and progression of Cave’s music and song writing over the years, it is not unreasonable to rate him alongside such legendary performers as Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Tom Waits.
Cave’s record sales have never been stellar, although his last dozen albums were all hits here and in the UK and Europe, and despite his long-term fascination with delta blues and Southern Gothic imagery, his chart presence in the States has been muted, with his best seller there being the Skeleton Tree album (#27) in 2016.Yet recent times have seen a more vulnerable and accessible Nick Cave emerge, thanks in part to the exposure of his music on film soundtracks like The Proposition, The Road, and The English Surgeon, and the TV show Peaky Blinders, his presence in the mainstream consciousness is stronger than ever. But after four decades of delighting his unfailingly loyal fanbase with unique and vivid songs of violence, religion, madness, intense love and great beauty, it’s his ever-deepening relationship with his audience, triggered by personal tragedy, that has reignited the fire that’s burned throughout his finest moments.His recent series of in-concert Q&A sessions have been unflinchingly honest and emotionally open, while in the Red Hand Files, he responds to a series of emails answering fans’ questions and offering advice that varies from wryly hilarious for more flippant correspondents, to deeply moving, his thoughts on grief are, understandably particularly poignant, given the accidental death of his son Arthur in 2015.
Nick Cave has become a kinder more empathetic person as he had aged, and musically he remains capable of being both surprising and beguiling, in a unique way.