All starting out as a suburban art school band from Melbourne, they quickly transformed into The Birthday Party, a feral collection of embryonic but already incendiary artistic presences. They made three era defining albums, before escaping to West Berlin and re-inventing themselves as The Bad Seeds, going on to make 15 studio albums and a side project in Grinderman. In between Cave managed to batter out a couple of novels, and some scripts and roles in a few films, most recently appearing in the 2014 documentary 20,000 Days On Earth.
What I’m saying is this present day image of Nick Cave, as a tragic balladeer and Kylie duettist, is only one part of an epic and expansive musical story. So, prompted by the current flurry of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds album re-issues, the next of which drops on March 9th, I have hacked together what is no doubt a contentious selection of songs to guide new listeners in.
From his prolific and intimidating discography, here are just a few tunes to get you started down this dark and winding road. Hold onto your hats and your sacks, it’s gonna get apocalyptic round here.
As we’re talking context, we have to begin with The Birthday Party. This spleen driven classic from their third and final album, before it all turned to shit in a scaggy London squat, will strip your ears of wax and your soul of beauty. Employing the lowest production values possible, it’s the free-form garage of Iggy & The Stooges with added abrasion; a filthily discordant mix of punk, blues and sneering rockabilly. Over rattling voodoo percussion, the guitars veer between cheese wire and barbed wire, a catastrophic bass thunders, and Cave wails like a lairy ghost. It feels tainted by anger and bodily fluids, a suppurating, spunk-stained mattress of a record. It’s an unpredictable, maelstrom of murderous intent and anarchic improvisation, and that’s what makes it as good a place to start as any.
The title track from this 1986 album is an elegant, velvety, piano led gospel ballad. But “The Carny” is its deranged sibling in the cellar; the distilled putrid essence of Cave’s time in Berlin, a torch song straight from the Weimar Republic, grappling in a not so stately embrace with Burt Bacharach. Appropriately, it conjures the demented dizzying fear of a fucked-up dark fantasy novel, but is forever associated in my mind with a red wine infused, mists-of-time trip to see them perform in Edinburgh which culminated in sleeping on a set of tenement steps. It was unsettling, cold, lonely, painful, and totally worth it, much like this record.