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