A Beginner’s Guide to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

Formed from the split of The Birthday Party, scraping through the ’80s Berlin scene and from there across the world, the life of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds has been a long and ‘colourful’ journey (even if the colours are mostly black and red). They’re probably the most successful Australian/European/American band ever, firmly in the position of an act who continue to sell out venues around the world, garner the attention and praise of the press alongside many fans all the while not having a mainstream hit since the mid ’90s (“Where the Wild Roses Grow” with Kylie Minogue – their first and only hit). So with 30 years of history and counting, where exactly do you start with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds?

The Critically-acclaimed Albums
The Fan Favourites
The Often Overlooked Albums
Extras to Try

The Critically-acclaimed Albums

nick cave and the bad seeds

If someone were to make you a mix tape of Bad Seeds songs, it’s almost without a doubt that they would start with something from these three albums: Murder Ballads (1996), Henry’s Dream (1992) and Tender Prey (1988).

nick cave and the bad seeds murder balladsThe mid part of the 90s was a favourable time for the Bad Seeds. Alt rock was popular and they took what was “in” and made it their own with a touch of humour and a high death-toll – things that go hand-in-hand, clearly. Murder Ballads started out as a joke amongst the band members, but really having an album full of songs about death, despair and murder was a really great idea. The subject matter wasn’t new to them, but this album took it to a different level entirely. Each song is different to the next, ranging from psychotic Americana in “The Curse of Millhaven” to the slow woe of “Henry Lee” (featuring PJ Harvey). The most-loved track on Murder Ballads is the unsettling “Where the Wild Roses Grow”, a collaboration with popstar Kylie Minogue, which tells the tale of a man and young woman: Minogue’s verses, all innocence, light and naivety, are a stark contrast to Cave’s; his character wrapped in obsession and a twisted desire to keep all of the young woman’s beauty for himself. This song, and the rest of Murder Ballads, captures the essence of the Bad Seeds’ work. Even if it doesn’t necessarily sound like the rest of their music, the styles and themes are all there: either someone dies or it’s a love song of sorts – the lyrics will always tell the story in a ominous or earnest way – all of this accompanied by a variety of different instruments often played in quirky or unusual methods.

Try these: Stagger Lee, Henry Lee, Where the Wild Roses Grow and The Curse of Millhaven.

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' Henry's DreamHenry’s Dream is a great album to follow-up with. It’s more raw than Murder Ballads: the album’s stories are set in the favelas of São Paulo, Brazil, Cave’s home at the time, and pull inspiration from street beggars and buskers who performed across the city. Henry’s Dream was the album that began to convince critics and many new fans that Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds was a band worth paying attention to, with its violence, lust, aggression and love all fused together with roughly strummed guitars and military drums.

“Papa Won’t Leave You, Henry”, “Jack the Ripper” and “I Had a Dream, Joe” cover the doom and gloom side of the proceedings with tales of murder,  disappointment and loss. The lyrics paint a vivid picture, such as the following from “Papa Won’t Leave You, Henry”:

“Well, I thought about my friend, Michel:
How they rolled him in linoleum
and shot him in the neck. A bloody halo,
like a think-bubble, circling his head”

Try these: Jack the Ripper, Straight To You, and I Had a Dream, Joe.

nick_cave_and_the_bad_seeds_tender_prey_downloadTender Prey sees The Bad Seeds sick and trapped in a maze of addiction. The album is short and anything but sweet – you will be strangely overcome with sadness and sympathy for the protagonist of the song “Watching Alice”, but then you have to think that it’s about a man watching a woman dress every morning through her window (without her knowledge and consent). Nick Cave has a way of making you sympathise with the strangest of characters, intentionally or not. Then there is “Deanna”, a jaunt with a Bonnie-and-Clyde style story:

“We discuss the murder plan, we discuss murder and the murder act
Murder takes the wheel of your Cadillac And death climbs in the back”

Deanna is a twisted sort of romance, with a bit of robbery, danger and above all: murder. But you still find yourself rooting for them, tapping your foot and humming along. Of course, there is also a lot of darkness woven into Tender Prey. Cave really tries to put the fear of God in you with the infamous epic “The Mercy Seat” which tells the story of a killer waiting for the electric chair, experiencing visions of the man Jesus himself as he slowly slips into a cloying madness. Compelling stuff.

Try these:“The City of Refuge”, “Deanna” and “The Mercy Seat”.

Fan Favourites

nick cave and the bad seeds
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' Push the Sky AwayPush The Sky Away sounds very much like incidental film music with a monologue over the top, which is no surprise with Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ recent contributions to a number of film soundtracks in the past decade or so (think the sparse landscapes of “The Road”). The songs on Push the Sky Away are built upon multi-instrumentalist Warren Ellis’ loops in odd 3/4 timings, often hardly changing except to add texture to the song. The synths, syncopated drums and plucked strings come together to paint a picture of the English seaside without ever having to resort to sampling sounds of waves crashing or seagulls crying in the sky; the album was written in Cave’s home in Brighton and then recorded at a high-end live-in studio in Southern France, so indeed it has picked up the sun along its formation. The mood is set with “We No Who U R”, a commentary on the digital age (hence the ‘text-speak’ title) and how it is hard to stay anonymous online: the song uses some great imagery of trees coming out to grab you, a true classic and disconcerting figuration if there ever was one, possibly hinting at how simple it is to follow your Internet activity with anonymous lurkers reaching out to you like spindly limbs of the aforementioned trees.

“Jubilee Street” is possibly one of the Bad Seeds’ greatest achievements. Cave and Ellis’ work with incidental music for film has clearly paid off – the mood is beautifully set from the very first second of Jubilee Street: rich tones, layer upon layer, create a pensive atmosphere the likes of never heard before in a Bad Seeds song. Sure, there are many moving songs, but something about Jubilee Street stands out – perhaps it’s the build up that accumulates into a beautiful display of raw emotion, the narrator of the song describing an experience somewhere between a sweet epiphany and the release of death:

“I am alone now, I am beyond recriminations.
Curtains are shut, furniture has gone.
I’m transforming. I’m vibrating.
I’m glowing, I’m flying – look at me now!”

Try these: Jubilee Street, Higgs Boson Blues, We No Who U R and Finishing Jubilee Street.

letloveinLet Love In is an album that sees Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds in a state of deconstruction. The electronic sounds used throughout opening track “Do You Love Me?” are very dated now – it would be understandable if you placed this song in the late ’80s. But rather than this making it sound cheesy, it just adds to the fog of misery around this album. Bells crop up in nearly every song either as a lyrical tool or a musical embellishment, tolling the coming of the ‘final days’. “Loverman” presents a whole new kind of performance from Cave: akin to the Birthday Party days but cracked, ageing and howling. “Red Right Hand” is derived from Milton’s Paradise Lost, telling the story of a shadowy individual who changes a small town forever. “Do You Love Me? Part II” recounts a youth lost, the main character of the song taunted by the few coins jangling in his pockets like bells as his walks.

Let Love In also deals with the perils of alcoholism and the effects it can have on those around you. Marital arguments are abound in “Thirsty Dog”, the name of the fictional pub of the protagonist’s respite. “Jangling Jack” is a precursor to the epic “O’Malley’s Bar” on “Murder Ballads”, following the events of a short bar dispute where a man seeks his own drunken demise. Typical Saturday night behaviour in the semi-fictional world of the Bad Seeds.

Try these: Loverman, Red Right Hand, Do You Love Me? and I Let Love In.

The Over-looked Albums

nick cave and the bad seeds

In 1985, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds were building momentum in Germany and into Europe. They were still raw with remnants from The Birthday Party, the previous band a bitter aftertaste in the back of your throat following a stiff drink. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds were still threatening, but in an underhand way when compared to the in-your-face approach of the Birthday Party. Yes, it is probably lazy to compare one band to another, especially when one is a slight-continuation of the other, but that’s how Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds were at the time: Cave was trying to carve out a name for himself in a scene full of similar acts or copy-cats, and it’s going to be a tough job after fronting a band that left such an impression as The Birthday Party. The Firstborn is Dead is this struggle personified – it’s a mash of stories of troubles in the lives of lower-class USA, from being a wanted killer to an allegory of Elvis Presley’s birth in the tiny town of Tupelo. The Firstborn is Dead takes a lot of cues from Johnny Cash and John Lee Hooker (“Tupelo” was inspired by one of Hooker’s songs), and with these influences Firstborn is quite different to the many other post-punk albums released in the mid 80s in that it doesn’t rely on punk or goth-rock tropes whilst still holding a grim outlook on life.

Try these: Train-long Suffering, Tupelo, Knockin’ on Joe and Black Crow King.

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' Dig, Lazarus, Dig!For something different, there is Dig! Lazarus, Dig! – this album was released in the wake of Grinderman’s first album, which may lead most to think that it is populated by the side-project’s cast-offs, but that isn’t the case. Dig! does have similar garage rock features, but it’s a completely different animal. This album was the band at its most radio friendly, with “sha-la-la“s and claptracks, chorus hooks and fun bass lines, whereas Grinderman was more about shocking people, grabbing them by the shirt and telling them straight to their face what’s going on. Although a new direction, Cave’s obsession with the grotesque side of humanity is still prevalent, such as the way he writes about sex in “Today’s Lesson”:

“He likes to congregate around
the intersection of Janie’s jeans, yeah
Mr Sandman the inseminator –
he opens her up like a love letter
and enters her dreams”

When Dig! was released, it was accompanied by short videos of the band having “seances” as such that Harry Houdini would have had, as the lesser-known side of the famous escapist was that he was quite spiritual and believed in reincarnation and resurrections – this, coupled with the Bible story of Lazarus, brings the Bad Seeds to Dig! Lazarus, Dig!. The album was a sort of resurrection in itself, dragging the band from the uncertain times of the early 2000s (Abattoir/Lyre not included) and breathing new life into their music.

Try these: Albert Goes West, Today’s Lesson, More News from Nowhere and Dig! Lazarus, Dig!.

Extras to try

nick cave and the bad seeds

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' The Boatman's CallMany listeners are on the fence with The Boatman’s Call. Released in 1997, it sees Cave sing about his break-up with PJ Harvey. Actually, he sings about it a lot – the band still play “West Country Girl” in their live shows now. The whole album feels a little self-indulgent, the lyrics are probably more akin to something you’d write down in a diary late at night than to something you’d release for the world to listen to. It’s Cave in full-on ballad mode, the rest of the band are mere shadows in the background which only helps to add emphasis to Cave’s vocals: the songs are empty to match all the soul-baring going on. If you like heartfelt ballads, then maybe The Boatman’s Call is perfect for you: “(Are You) the One That I’ve Been Waiting For” is the best track on the album, a dichotomy between sorrow and wonder:

“As you’ve been moving surely toward me, my soul has comforted and assured me,
That in time my heart it will reward me
And that all will be revealed.
So I’ve sat and I’ve watched an ice-age thaw
– Are you the one that I’ve been waiting for?”

Perhaps a little bit of truthfulness and brash honesty was just what Cave needed to do at that time – the vast majority of songs before were built on the backs of characters, a pile of bodies at their fictitious feet.  Of course, this brash honesty had a true Nick Cave Feel(TM) to it. Could any other musician use the word “c**t” in a ballad (“Green Eyes”, also on this album) without a smirk on their face? And if they could, would they be taken seriously? There are indeed things that can only truly be pulled off by Nick Cave.

Try these: (Are You) The One That I’ve Been Waiting For, People Ain’t No Good and Into My Arms

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' The Good SonThe next album on this list is The Good Son. It hasn’t aged too well as it does use the vibraphone quite a lot (an instrument not to be confused with a glockenspiel), but the songs themselves pass the test of time with their ambivalence in true Bad Seeds style: “The Ship Song” may suffer a bit from over corny-ness but it is a classic dark love-ballad detailing the shreds that love can take out of you: “Come loose your dogs upon me” or “I must remove your wings / And you, you must try to fly”; or “The Weeping Song” which features Blixa Bargeld (band mate and also eccentric front man of Einstürzende Neubauten) on vocals alongside Cave, with Bargeld singing in the deepest bass imaginable. It tells the story of a father and son rejoicing in their sadness knowing that they can’t truly be sad forever, but seemingly glad for the chance to experience the emotion.

Try these: The Ship Song, The Witness Song and The Weeping Song

All albums are available through Amazon, iTunes and Nickcave.com

What songs stood out for you? Do you have any favourites? Share your thoughts in the comment box below.