How to be hu­man

A new com­pi­la­tion charts the dark, au­da­cious and ever-chang­ing Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds – a band that as­pired to greatness with­out com­pro­mise.

The National - News - The Review - - Music - John Robin­son re­ports John Robin­son is as­so­ciate edi­tor of Un­cut. He lives in Lon­don.

When his teenage son Arthur fell to his death from cliffs in Brighton, Eng­land, in the sum­mer of 2015, the tragedy had an un­in­tended con­se­quence for Nick Cave. As dev­as­tat­ing as it was, it did not cease the flow of his mu­sic. A new al­bum, Skele­ton Tree, recorded in au­tumn of 2015, de­vel­oped into a work in which the death was present in a mood of sym­bolic fore­bod­ing and vis­ceral emo­tion, even though it was not spo­ken of di­rectly.

It also meant that Cave – for the past 30-plus years a loom­ing un­der­ground mu­si­cian, alive with high art, ex­treme hair and cer­tain dan­ger – be­came re­lat­able. As Cave re­calls in An­drew Do­minik’s doc­u­men­tary One More Time with

Feel­ing, about mak­ing the al­bum, peo­ple were com­ing up to him in the bak­ery and of­fer­ing con­do­lences for his loss. On one level, new box set Lovely Crea­tures (the deluxe edi­tion in­cludes a 36-page book of es­says along with three CDs and a DVD of con­cert footage and band in­ter­views) ex­plores how that might have come to pass. Cave be­gins disc one as a penu­ri­ous post-punk mu­si­cian, liv­ing in seedy de­bauch­ery in West Ber­lin. Here, he records with a seem­ingly ad hoc col­lec­tion of lo­cal play­ers, Brits and ex­pa­tri­ate Aus­tralians like him­self, first as “the Cave­men”, ul­ti­mately as The Bad Seeds.

They’re a band that set out their stall among the big names – Elvis, John Lee Hooker, Leonard Co­hen – and as­pire to greatness with­out com­pro­mise. In so do­ing they bounce off the walls with au­da­cious cover ver­sions and genre mu­ti­la­tions, and bite the hands of those who feed them. They write a song about Bri­tish mu­sic jour­nal­ists (called

Scum; a rar­ity in­cluded on disc one) and tor­ment tele­vi­sion in­ter­view­ers who are only try­ing to help (see DVD for de­tails). Along the way there are col­lab­o­ra­tions, ar­rests, sev­eral films, a Faulkne­r­ian novel, life-threat­en­ing pur­suits, cig­a­rettes, close shaves, great shirts and an im­pres­sive quan­tity of records that all ful­mi­nate with the band’s dark in­ti­ma­tions and Cave’s ro­man­tic and in­tel­lec­tual search for some­thing new to do with a song. When he and his band re­ally hit their stride in 1988, it is with a song called The Mercy Seat, an en­tropic nar­ra­tion voiced from the elec­tric chair, as Cave pon­ders the jus­tice meted out by the pe­nal sys­tems of this world and com­pares them to the pun­ish­ments of­fered by the next.

For an en­tire sub­cul­ture of young peo­ple wear­ing black cloth­ing in cold cities – “goths” – Cave be­came poet lau­re­ate. By the close of the fi­nal disc, the goths have dis­persed (al­though the ex­pa­tri­ate Aus­tralians for the most part haven’t) – and Cave is liv­ing in a large house in a coastal city in Eng­land, writ­ing songs that ref­er­ence Wikipedia and Mi­ley Cyrus; a man in his late 50s who is mar­ried to a model/cloth­ing de­signer. He is an artist, but has also be­come some­thing a bit like a celebrity.

This seems as much a sur­prise to the self-crit­i­cal Cave as to any­one – one in­ter­view clip finds him ex­press­ing his em­bar­rass­ment that he is still in rock ‘n’ roll at 28, never mind at 57. Rather than the re­sult of a plan, it seems his ca­reer has de­vel­oped spon­ta­neously: work­ing with the avail­able re­sources, writ­ing about what hap­pens to be in­ter­est­ing to him at the time.

The Bad Seeds, like­wise, are sub­tly chang­ing. Like a weather sys­tem, they bring changes in at­mos­phere, which you’ll hear in all the songs here. In the early ones, Cave cre­ates an el­e­men­tal, of­ten vi­o­lent land­scape, but the band en­sure it is com­pelling and del­i­cately shaded. Al­though not writ­ten by Cave – it’s cred­ited to gui­tarist Blixa Bargeld and a 1980s Cave paramour, Anita Lane – Stranger Than Kind­ness, from 1986, is an im­por­tant composition. A glow­er­ing and im­pres­sion­is­tic piece in which a thrum­ming alien gui­tar shifts un­show­ily be­tween po­si­tions, it throws for­ward nearly 30 years to the drift­ing and gaseous work Cave now writes in as­so­ci­a­tion with vi­o­lin­ist Warren El­lis. Bad Seeds come and go – and so does Cave’s in­ter­est in clas­sic song­writ­ing tech­nique. An im­por­tant tran­si­tion oc­curs with 1988’s Ten­der Prey al­bum, where the art­ful chaos of the ear­li­est records now co­a­lesces into pi­rat­i­cal shanties – ac­tual recog­nis­able struc­tures. From here, it was a short leap to the for­mal­ity of 1990s The Ship Song, the band coo­ing in uni­son around Cave’s pi­ano and the first Bad Seeds song some­one might want to play at their wed­ding.

Cave has been on a binge/purge cy­cle with the bal­lad ever since – ven­tur­ing away with the chaotic

Henry’s Dream or self-ex­plana­to­rily vi­o­lent Mur­der Bal­lads al­bums, and then re­turn­ing with 1997’s The Boat­man’s Call, a sharply-fo­cused med­i­ta­tion on love and God. It’s th­ese last two records in par­tic­u­lar that be­gan the process of bring­ing Cave to where he is to­day. One gave him an un­likely hit sin­gle

(Where the Wild Roses Grow – his duet with Aus­tralian pop star Kylie Minogue). The other showed that this strange, scowl­ing man held deep hu­man feel­ings any­one might iden­tify with.

Ap­proach­ing the new mil­len­nium, with his crit­i­cal ac­claim at its height, Cave took four years off and pre­pared for a new phase: later life. A great­est-hits al­bum was re­leased to mark his sub­stan­tial achieve­ments. What hap­pened next, though, was in its way no less ex­treme. Cave quit his ad­dic­tions and ap­plied his vivid pro­lix­ity to his new life as a hus­band and fa­ther of twins. We meet this new man on disc three.

Now an “old rock ‘n’ roller with a two seater stroller”, his songs em­brace do­mes­tic­ity, in­vert­ing the blues tropes he once leaned on, with a self-know­ing swag­ger. “I woke up this morn­ing,” he sang on Abat­toir Blues/The Lyre of Or­pheus from 2004, “with a Frap­puc­cino in my hand …”

Do­mes­ti­cat­ing the man did not mean paci­fy­ing the tal­ent, how­ever. By the time of 2013’s Push the Sky Away (the ti­tle track and the epic Higgs Bo­son Blues are among the very best songs here) it has en­tailed a kind of mag­i­cal, dream­like state in Cave’s writ­ing, in which he ob­serves wryly and om­ni­sciently of the mod­ern world, held aloft by the ce­les­tial vague­ness of the new Bad Seeds mu­sic. In the af­ter­word to this new com­pi­la­tion, Cave writes of it as a land­mark record, “throw­ing open of the doors to a new way ... to make mu­sic”.

This new col­lec­tion, he con­tin­ues, was set for re­lease in au­tumn 2015. Rather than be­ing able to lux­u­ri­ate in his past achieve­ments, how­ever, events re­quired him ur­gently to make new work. A new chap­ter is now be­gin­ning, in what he writes is a “strange, raw, and dif­fer­ent present”.

When Nick Cave and his band re­ally hit their stride in 1988, it is with a song called The Mercy Seat, an en­tropic nar­ra­tion voiced from the elec­tric chair

Michel Linssen / Red­ferns

Nick Cave, right, and gui­tarist Blixa Bargeld of the Bad Seeds per­form in the Nether­lands in the 1990s.

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds Mute/BMG Dh120

Lovely Crea­tures

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