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A Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds Primer

On June 19, 2018

Out of all the groups to emerge from the often tempestuous waters of post-punk, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds have arguably proven its truest survivors. For 35 years the band has tirelessly brought Cave's darkest and most emotive visions to life; visions filled with murder, apocalyptic imagery, and good old-fashioned love.

Birthed from the ashes of The Birthday Party, Cave and multi-instrumentalist Mick Harveys' first outfit, the aim of The Bad Seeds was to provide a more musically proficient outfit for the macabre worlds they were creating. Confidently emerging in 1984 with 'From Her To Eternity', the group's debut grabbed its listeners by the collar, barraging ears with pounding pianos, screeching guitars and Cave's moan and howl. Liking it was subjective, but hell, it was impossible to ignore.

What's followed has been a wild ride filled with balladry, drug addiction, and even a Kylie Minogue duet. Over sixteen studio albums, the arresting frontman has gone from a backcombed demon to being mentioned in the same breath as Cohen, Waits and Dylan. It's a richly deserved comparison, one we intend to explore a little now. This is your Bad Seeds primer...

Tender Prey (1988)

The first years of the Bad Seeds' output can be seen more as a perfection of the original formula, rather than a series of drastic artistic leaps. Sure, there is an impressive amount of sonic evolution and the songwriting itself never falls below impressive, but it's Tender Prey that encapsulates the group's early melancholic fury in its entirety. Recorded in West Berlin over four months, the band's fifth studio album captures them at their most strung-out and dangerous. While Cave himself understandably looks back at this period with some regret, the album's chaotic nature and lack of focus is part of its charm.

Opening with one of the greatest tracks they've penned, "The Mercy Seat," the listener is instantly thrown into their pitch-black world, one filled with death row inmates, lost prayers and doomed souls. The following one-two punch of "Up Jumped The Devil" and the sneering "Deanna" makes for quite possibly the best album start to anything in their catalog. For the sake of their sanity (and probably lives), the band soon changed tack on following releases, but for a testament to the raw venomous quality and nightmarish storytelling of early Bad Seeds, look no further.

Let Love In (1994)

For pure bang for your buck, you can't go wrong with the outfit's eighth studio album. Perhaps the perfect start for beginners, Let Love In majestically traverses the band's more nuanced songwriting with moments of exuberant fury. From the mournful "Nobody's Baby Now" to the sinister "Loverman" and "Red Right Hand," this is the Bad Seeds using everything in their arsenal to create one intoxicating package.

By this point, Cave had perfected his trademark croon, his voice now able to soothe a weary soul as well as scare them back to hell. This is most clearly seen on "Do You Love Me" parts one and two, which bookend the album. The former sees The Bad Seeds on seductive form. Blixa Bargeld's guitar licks adding real swagger to this tale of sex and love gone wrong. The latter is a spectral funeral march, the sad story of a rent boy selling his body in pornographic cinemas. The manner in which the band repurposes the melody to create two distinctly different numbers is a true testament to their talents and imagination.

A must own.

The Boatman's Call (1997)

The closest thing to a Cave solo album, this stripped-back release sees the group ditch any signs of their punk beginnings and focus on a more minimal and personal sound. Written in the wake of Cave's divorce from Viviane Carneiro and his break up from PJ Harvey, this somber and romantic album is also considered the band's most biographical. The tone is firmly set from the opening piano chords of "Into My Arms," one of the most straightforward and affecting tunes the frontman has penned and a fan-favorite to this day.

After spending years telling tall-tales of dastardly men and unforgivable crimes, The Boatman's Call bravely sees a group so synonymous with drama and larger-than-life characterization take a step back and let the songs breathe. What follows is 12 tracks dripping with heartbreak, remorse and haunting melody. From this point onward the Bad Seeds would truly understand that they wielded as much power with the volume turned low as they did tearing up the stage. A true masterclass in restraint.

Abattoir Blues / The Lyre of Orpheus (2004)

This 17-track double album sees the Bad Seeds' manic energy of old return, this time filtered through a kaleidoscopic range of influences. Easily the band's most varied and diverse release, it's also the first without founding member Blixa Bargeld. From this point onward, Cave and new right-hand man Warren Ellis' collaborative relationship really takes flight, the two sharing songwriting credits on six numbers.

It's a wild time, the first side filled with gospel backed rock 'n' roll numbers and gothic stompers. Cave's lyrics, though still primarily focused on religion and violence, start to incorporate more surreal elements, a trend that only grew stronger. Still, between all the talk of cannibals and serpents are some of the band's most joyous and sweet love songs. Side two showcases the group's more melancholic nature, with "Easy Money," "Come To Me" and "O Children" going right for the tear ducts.

After the comparatively by-the-numbers approach of previous release Nocturama, this 13th Bad Seeds LP sees the group rediscover some of their adventurous spirit and begin a journey to a wild reinvention.

Push The Sky Away (2013)

A haunting and experimental work, this gossamer set sees Ellis and Caves' extra-curricular film duties drift into the Bad Seeds with the best possible results. While there's still an undercurrent of sleaze and danger, especially on the brooding "Water's Edge," Push The Sky Away mostly ditches the gothic textures so associated with the band. With minimal drumming and synth lines backing the majority, Cave's lyrical approach also takes a much more free-form approach; mummified cats, Miley Cyrus and particle physics all featuring.

It's a fascinating listen, one that lures the audience in with its heady mix of gentle melodies and understated groove. While it took some fans by surprise when first released, the album is now seen as a late-career masterpiece, one that perplexingly enough helped rocket the critical and cult darlings to festival headliner status. Not bad for an album Cave describes like a "ghost-baby in the incubator and Warren's loops are its tiny, trembling heart-beat." He may indeed be a god, a man, and a guru.

Profile Picture of Sam Walker-Smart
Sam Walker-Smart

Sam Walker-Smart is a Barcelona based journalist. His writing has appeared in CLASH, Little White Lies and El Huffington Post. He enjoys fine beer and fine company.

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