Looking back on the career of Australia’s Goth bard
“I write all these songs at the same time,” Nick Cave was telling me, back in 1992, “and that’s why there are echoes of one character within the other. Similar characters. I think that it works.”
He was, ostensibly, promoting his and the Bad Seeds’ seventh album, the dark and compelling Henry’s Dream. He was talking about the musical novellas and the disturbed characters he had created.
“It’s a concept album,” Cave continued, “but I don’t really know what the concept is. I’m so disgusted with music after I’ve made a record, I just don’t want to have anything to do with it. I’m exhausted by it.”
“Disgust” is not often a term uses an artist uses to discuss the results of the creative process. “Well, it’s a bit like, um,” Cave said, with a pause and a chuckle, “having a lot of sex and then the idea of having it again for a while is kind of nauseating. You have to wait for the desire to come back again.”
VIDEO: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds “Straight to You”
In my 40-plus years of doing this – reviewing and interviewing rock folks – I’d have to say Cave is the most analytical and self-critical rocker I’ve met. That’s not to say ego isn’t involved – of course it is, it’s the nature of the biz, the singer-songwriter-frontman job – and Cave doesn’t lack for it. But his willingness, nigh eagerness almost, to dissect and, if necessary, self-eviscerate is a rare thing. He generally is quite droll about it.
“One of the talents I have,” Cave said, “is to be able to look at my records and find out what’s wrong with them or see things that I would like to change. I find that each one is so self-contained that it’s all a bit too well-rounded. I’d like to do something more shambolic, more like a trash can of a lot of different songs. For me, I feel like I feel a lot of pressure with each record because now we have a history of making records that have their own theme.”
Skip ahead six years – that’s 1998 – and Warner Bros./Mute, has put out a compilation album, The Best of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, presumably to introduce or re-introduce the band to an American audience that maybe wasn’t quite sure of who they were or if they cared or liked them at all.
Cave and the Bad Seeds were on tour and Cave was on the phone to (once again) ostensibly goose sales for the shows and the record. But: “I have no great desire to let anyone know I’m still here. I just think it’s been a long time since we’ve been to America. My relationship with it has been somewhat strained over the years. I’m not quite sure why but a certain amount has to do with Lollapalooza, which I found quite distracting in a lot of ways. It’s been so long. America almost seems like a new place to go.
“In America, my music is generally considered dark, depressing music. I think that even if my music is considered relentlessly dark, there is a calming element. In Europe, I think people are starting to understand that there is a very healthy sense of humor in there, a kind of bright light that shines through these songs.”
Cave and the Bad Seeds had last toured the country in 1994 as part of the Lollapalooza cavalcade. (Yes, those were the days when it moved from city to city – or summer shed to summer shed – and wasn’t just a Chicago-only occasion.) But Cave and the Bad Seeds had a slot mid-bill, mid-day, in the multi-band lineup. This was – and remains – a band you do not want to see in the daylight. A dark stage and proper lighting effects are necessary. Atmosphere is integral to the unfolding drama and catharsis.
That best-of album Cave was talking about was going to hit No. 2 in Cave’s native Australia and no. 11 in the UK. But, predictably perhaps, it failed to chart in the United States. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds weren’t an easy sell here. Then, at least.
Now – as Cave turns 65 on Sept. 22 – it’s a somewhat different story. Maybe not in terms of album sales (or downloads or streams), but in terms of selling out theaters and playing to devoted, hardcore audiences. Not mass appeal, but bigtime cult appeal.
Cave originally formed The Birthday Party in 1977 in Melbourne, moving to London in the early ‘80s. They became known for confrontational, caterwauling and oft-cacophonous post-punk rock ‘n’ roll, and, with Bauhaus, recognized as a key band of the nascent Goth movement.
Years later, Cave told me, of the Goths: “They are the most enduring and brave of the [subcultures]. There’s something sweet about that. When the big bomb goes off, all that’s going to survive are goths and cockroaches.”
Since 1983, Cave has fronted various versions of the Bad Seeds, as well as playing in other combinations, often in a duo setting with Seeds violinist Warren Ellis. The forte: Bluesy murder ballads and spiritual love songs, dramatic story-songs that can take the listener deep into the pit of despair and then lift them out. At least that’s one of my takes.
“Well, at least getting them there,” said Cave with a slight laugh. “I think America seems to have this arm-wrestle about what is dark and not. I’ve never seen music in those terms. I think I’m dealing, mostly, with issues of love. And to me, there’s nothing more positive than that.”
Hmmm. Maybe, but I flash back to one of the Birthday Party’s most riveting songs, “Sonny’s Burning,” which begins with Cave’s shout: “Hand’s up! Who wants to die?!” In the Birthday Party, Cave was wailing and railing about sin and salvation, setting desperate lyrics to this harsh, grinding rock, highly influential in the angst-obsessed and highly agitated post-punk world. The Birthday Party let the shrapnel fly. It was vicious, violent stuff. Saw ‘em live, once at a Boston club.
And then I go to the gentle, but persuasive, Bad Seeds’ song, “People Ain’t No Good,” a great bookend, by the way, to the Cramps very different song of the same name. (Go ahead: Compare and contrast.) In Cave’s hands, the song is a lament and the song is so powerful you don’t question his judgment at all.
And then there’s “Mercy Seat,” whipped into a frenzy by the Bad Seeds and later covered as a dirge by Johnny Cash. It’s a frenzied, helter-skelter song sung from the point of view of a condemned man about to face his fate in the electric chair for a crime he may or may not have committed: “And the mercy seat is waiting/And I think my head is burning/And in a way I’m yearning/To be done with all this measuring of proof/An eye for an eye/And a tooth for a tooth/And anyway I told the truth/And I’m not afraid to die.”
“I do have a love of violent literature,” Cave told me. “And I do get a kick out of writing violent lyrics as well. I guess when these two things get together, love and violence, it makes for some nasty songwriting. But I never see that as gloomy or depressing. I see it as quite lively.
“To express that violence as in the Birthday Party, I’m no longer interested in doing, but I think I’m still very interested in violence and expressing it in different ways. The Good Son [sixth album, released in 1990] is a deceptive record. I’ve read a lot of things with people basically talking about it in terms of it being romantic, beautiful, happily rehabilitated. Which makes me want to throw up.”
VIDEO: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds “The Mercy Seat”
You can’t interpret many of Cave’s songs in black or white terms. They’re all pretty much tangled up. “It’s the world we live in,” Cave said, of what and how he writes. “I think that songs that bang on about what a happy lot this human race is and everything is full of joy, that’s an alternate world. I don’t mean to be depressing about these things, but I find songs like that quite strange.”
Perhaps it’s fair to say Cave has eased into a different slot over time: a mannered, suave, Bryan Ferry-Leonard Cohen-esque groove of sadness and loss. The heavy, harrowing hammer of yore is swung more softly these days. (Exception: Grinderman, the offshoot group Cave fronted 2009-2011 and again in 2013. As NOW magazine put it, reviewing their eponymous debut LP: “Once our boy Nick begins his bellicose bellowing, there’s no mistaking Grinderman’s amped-up scorch for anything but another of Cave’s darkly humorous creations of magnificent malevolence.”)
With the Bad Seeds, desperation lives, to be sure, but it’s mostly quieter, calmer, sometimes more of a subtext than calling card. is more disturbing than the song structure. Cave and the Bad Seeds favor piano-based melodies, sweeping string arrangements and a balancing act of grace and danger.
It was the same vibe – or mixture of vibes – when he and Ellis go out on tour, as they did last March. The duo released the eight-song album, Carnage. in February. When I saw them at Boston’s Wang Theater, they featured six from that album, seven from Cave and the Bad Sees’ Ghosteen. The latter album felt suffused with songs that, obliquely perhaps, seemed to reference his 15-year-old son Arthur’s tragic death from a cliff fall in 2015. (Cave said most of the songs were written before that happened. Still … ) As I wrote about that Cave/Ellis show on this site: “I’m not sure I’ve ever been held as spellbound by a concert. Roxy Music is in that mix, as is Spiritualized.”
And Cave would very much appear to be that rare thing in rock: The artist whose power and scope increases with age, who continues to make new music as vital as the old music.