There’s a case to be made for Nick Cave being a rock’n’roll shape-shifter of David Bowie’s equal, even if he’s looked like a spindly Thin White Duke in a black suit for 30-odd years.
I’m not talking flamboyant makeovers here – Cave has looked the same throughout, bar changing the colour of his shirt the odd time, and the occasional moustache. And there’s a genuine wtf moment in the 2016 documentary One More Time With Feeling when he’s sitting at his kitchen table in an Adidas zipper.
But over the decades, Nick Cave has played many parts. He’s been a post-punk antagonist in the Birthday Party and a disciple of the Delta blues. He’s a one-time junkie whose ‘Berlin years’ were spent full to the brim with heroin, writing an epic Southern Gothic novel while leading the Bad Seeds, one of the most formidable backing bands of them all.
Cave is the Old Testament obsessive who can read Kylie Minogue lyrics at a literary festival and namedrops Hannah Montana and the Higgs Boson side by side; he’s the murder balladeer and writer of epic Westerns who lives at the seaside in Brighton. He’s written a grotty sex novel about a door-to-door cosmetics salesman who’s obsessed with Avril Lavigne, and he once wrote the preface to an edition of Mark’s Gospel.
Of course Cave’s God-given role is big chief Bad Seed, leading the band through 16 albums since 1984, from feral, murderous blues to gothic balladry, avant-garde rock and high-brow literary explorations through music.
Cave turned 60 last year, but he’s still hip-shuffling, high-kicking, pointing fingers and spitting fire & brimstone to front rows worldwide, and apparently he’s just written six new soundtracks.
Here’s an attempt to make sense of one of modern music’s most revered song books…
Tupelo (The Firstborn is Dead, 1985)
The sickening bass rumble that pins down Tupelo is one of the most frightening sounds in Bad Seeds lore, along with the seemingly random drum snaps whacking you from behind. Cave’s second album takes the blues down the darkest available paths, and Tupelo is the album’s black heart. Opening with a thunder crack and a deluge, it’s a nod to John Lee Hooker’s Tupelo Blues and a surreal origin story about the birth of Elvis as a stormy nativity scene, as “the black rain come down”.
Scum (Your Funeral, My Trial, 1986)
The Bad Seeds sound like they’re channeling early Swans with this chundering din. And it’s hard to believe that by 1986 Michael Gira hadn’t used Scum as a song title already, with his own blunt force titles like Filth, Freak, Job, Thug and Butcher.
Beginning with Cave curdling a spit in the back of his throat, Scum’s lurching forward motion is all in the violent downbeats, with single note power chords like daggers and cavernous drums to the fore.
Upping the Gira ante, It also has Cave at his most grotesque, taking aim at an unnamed traitor, a “miserable shit-wringing turd”, with images of a “herpes bath towel”, and a “snowman with six holes clean into his fat fuckin guts”.
The Weeping Song (The Good Son, 1990)
Cave has had some high-profile duets, with Kylie Minogue, PJ Harvey, Shane MacGowan and Johnny Cash earning him crossover kudos with new tribes. But this back and forth with former Bad Seed and Einstürzende Neubauten leader Blixa Bargeld is his greatest.
The Good Son was Cave’s first album after a stint in heroin rehab, and some wondered whether he’d cleaned up too much – from his white suit on the front cover, to the tender hold-hands lead single The Ship Song.
The Weeping Song is brilliant though, an arched eyebrow take on sad song tropes, with Blixa out-gothing Cave with his Berlin baritone over glockenspiel, piano and handclaps.
You need the video for the full effect, with Blixa and Nick awkwardly dancing in a spotlight and rowing a boat on a sea of bin bags, drinking hard liquor under a full moon.
Stagger Lee (Murder Ballads, 1996)
It’s obvious, yeah, but if you don’t include Stagger Lee in a Nick Cave top 10 you’re just being awkward.
Cave has written some malevolent characters over the years. The psycho killer in O’Malley’s Bar – also on Murder Ballads – comes close, but no one outdoes the “bad motherfucker called Stagger Lee”.
Dozens of dead bodies pile up all through the Murder Ballads album, and even though there’s only two killings in Stagger Lee, they’re carried out with such lip-curling menace that Stag steals the show.
Over scratched guitar chords, an occasional battered piano key and Martyn P Casey’s deceptively funky bassline, Stagger Lee puts four holes in a barman’s head for giving him lip, then shoots a hooker’s husband after forcing him into a gunpoint blowjob. Well, what did you expect if you’re running a bar called The Bucket of Blood?
Stag’s explanation: “I’m a bad motherfucker, don’t ya know, and I’ll crawl over 50 good pussies just to get to one fat boy’s asshole.”
Stagger Lee is often the centrepiece of Cave’s live shows, and he goes one better in concert – summoning up the devil and shooting the fuck out of him too.
Fifteen Feet of Pure White Snow (And No More Shall We Part, 2001)
Who knows whether this is a drugs metaphor, a song about depression and rejection, or an actual tragedy about dying children, but this song has some of Cave’s most enduring images, over a beautiful piano trickle. He calls out for Mona, Mary, Matthew, Mark, Michael and John, as they “haven’t put their mittens on, and there’s fifteen feet of pure white snow”. He also calls to God, his nurse and his neighbour, but no one’s answering.
This is another one with an essential video, with the Bad Seeds playing in a run-down wood-panelled Soviet council office to a handful of elated locals – including Jarvis Cocker and Jason Donovan.
Hiding All Away (Abattoir Blues, 2004)
Hiding All Away is a filthy gutter dirge of a song that seems like a dark horse in a top 10, but it has the closest to a ‘drop’ on any Bad Seeds record – a one-second pause in the song’s final act before Cave and a mini-choir of backing singers go full hellfire, screaming, “There is a war coming!” over and over as the song batters you into next week.
The tension builds up to that point, with grating dischord, a one-note bassline and wailing organ, as Cave plays hide & seek mind games with his “dear”, who finds all manner of violent ends searching for her asshole AWOL lover.
We Call Upon the Author (Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!, 2008)
Cave has always been fully open about his writing process, with full disclosure in interviews that he puts on a suit and goes to the studio from 9 to 5 like an office worker, hammering songs into shape through plenty of sweat.
We Call Upon the Author is a meta commentary on his own try-hard verbosity as a writer, with the screamed anti-chorus, “Prolix! Prolix! Nothing that a pair of scissors can’t fix.” There’s also a case for the author being God himself, framed alongside Bukowski and Hemingway, with the mangled church organ and snarling religious imagery.
Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!! Is The Bad Seeds’ most ‘rock’ album, informed by the sleazy garage of the Grinderman project, and We Call Upon the Author is all the album’s best bits stuffed into five minutes.
Jubilee Street (Push the Sky Away, 2013)
Fans feared a nosedive when Bad Seed founder and longtime musical director Mick Harvey left the fold in 2009 — especially after the visceral heft of Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!, one of the band’ noisiest, most raucous records.
Push the Sky Away seems initially slight without the guttery riffs and unchecked aggression of the Lazarus and Grinderman period, but it’s also one of the Bad Seeds’ most sonically inventive record, largely based around Warren Ellis’s impressionistic electronic loops, with odd time signatures and Cave observing life around him rather than being consumed by it. Jubilee Street is a bit of a concession, though – one of The Bad Seeds’ most epic builds, and already a live classic.
The song is sketched out through gentle strums with seeming non-sequiturs (“I’ve got a foetus on a leash”; “When they shot her down, the Russians moved in”), before the almost godlike finale of Cave declaring, “I’m transforming, I’m vibrating, I’m glowing, I’m flying… Look at me now.”
Push the Sky Away (2013)
Push the Sky Away’s lyrics seem cheesy on the page, and could easily be dropped into a Rocky IV training montage tune or a Motley Crue songbook. But instead, lines like, “Some people say it’s just rock and roll, oh but it gets you right down to your soul,” are half-whispered over a Warren Ellis’s delicate synth drone, and angelic, childlike backing vocals.
The album closer is one of Cave’s most minimal pieces, and it floats off like a mist – forming a stepping stone to Cave’s follow-up record Skeleton Tree, on which Ellis had an even greater role.
Magneto (Skeleton Tree, 2016)
Skeleton Tree was released in the wake of the tragic death of Cave’s 15-year-old son Arthur in 2015, and it’s been too convenient for critics to assign grief and loss to the whole project. In truth, Cave had most of the record’s lyrics finished before Arthur’s death, and he had already planned another abstract loop-based recording process with Ellis.
Still, even Cave admits the premonitory nature of some lines and themes. And a line in Magneto, “I had such blues down there in the supermarket queues”, mirrors a story he tells in the documentary One More Time With Feeling, of being overcome with sorrow and gratitude when comforted by strangers in shops in Brighton.
Magneto isn’t the most overtly beautiful or melancholy song on Skeleton Tree, but it’s wrought with startling imagery, of “hyena’s hymns”, “rabid blood”, and of Cave shaking like “an electrical storm on the bathroom floor, clutching the bowl”.
In between a sighing bassline and tense, hissing electronics, Cave is reduced to a whisper, as the “stars are splashed and splattered across the ceiling”, his sky closing in.