The Student Playlist

Showcasing the Best New Music, Curating the Classics

FROM WORST TO BEST: Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds

17. Nocturama (2003)

Nick Cave

Well, this was an easy one. Nocturama isn’t bad, per se, but it’s by far the least inspired of Cave’s albums with The Bad Seeds. For an album which reunited Cave with producer Nick Launay, who helped produced The Birthday Party’s most energised work, for the first time in 21 years, Cave’s 12th album with The Bad Seeds never really gets out of second gear, a dismal failure on its own terms and by comparison to the rest of their catalogue.

Pretty much every musical idea present on Nocturama not only feels like something Cave has explored before but also, crucially, had done so to much greater effect in the past. Terribly derivative tracks like ‘Rock Of Gibraltar’ and ‘Dead Man In My Bed’ are the worst offenders, sounding like the work of somebody else trying and failing to write a Nick Cave song, and the sprawling closer ‘Babe, I’m On Fire’, at a totally needless 15 minutes in length, simply cannot be sustained by the lazy lyrical scheme, and actually becomes irritating in its relentless noisiness.

One senses that it’s aiming for the stateliness of The Boatman’s Call and the joyous outbursts of Abbatoir Blues / The Lyre Of Orpheus which was to come the following year, but ultimately, it falls between two stools. Other Cave albums, both long gone and yet to come, would achieve that balance much more effectively. (LISTEN)

16. Kicking Against The Pricks (1986)

Nick Cave

An entire album of cover versions, Kicking Against The Pricks is admittedly an oddity in Cave’s catalogue, perhaps not ideally suited for comparison against his sixteen other albums of original material. However, it does provide a valuable insight into his influences as a songwriter, consisting of some gospel traditionals (‘Jesus Met The Woman At The Well’), rough early blues (John Lee Hooker’s ‘I’m Gonna Kill That Woman’), ’50s staples and torch ballads (Jimmy Webb’s ‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix’) and underground classics (The Velvet Underground’s ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’), either interpreted faithfully or transformed into almost unrecognisable reconstructions.

While Cave has always downplayed the record’s importance, he has said that it was a kind of gateway. “It allowed us to discover different elements, to actually make and perform a variety of different sorts of music successfully. I think that helped subsequent records tremendously,” he told Rolling Stone in 1998. On a personnel level, it’s also the first appearance for Thomas Wydler, who remains with The Bad Seeds to this day. Able to play explosively, he freed up Mick Harvey to concentrate on providing the textured guitar work that became a trademark of the band’s sound going forward. While it’s one of the least essential albums, Kicking Against The Pricks is certainly intriguing, but not to be approached until one has a reasonable grounding in Cave’s more famous work. (LISTEN)

15. Your Funeral… My Trial (1986)

Nick Cave

Released just three months after Kicking Against The Pricks, Cave’s third album of original material was originally released as a double EP. In the depths of a heroin addiction at the time, his head filled with nightmarish visions inspired by Flannery O’Connor’s Southern Gothic stories, it accounts for sense of desperate melancholia and anxiety that pervades every note of Your Funeral… My Trial. Ominous album stand-out ‘The Carny’, replete with carnival-esque music boxes, sounds like a feverish, sweat-drenched hallucination made flesh and blood, and stands as one of the most enduringly perplexing things in all of Cave’s varied catalogue and a testament to their transportive power as you feel like you’re right there as the disaster unfolds.

On this interesting, yet undoubtedly flawed album, The Bad Seeds’ power is deliberately put on a leash, brooding rather than menacing, used to hint at destruction and redemption for Cave’s characters rather than explicitly stating them, on restrained tracks like ‘Sad Waters’, the impenetrable mystery of ‘Stranger Than Kindness’ that floats on Blixa Bargeld’s vibrating guitar lines. Cave himself remains cryptic for the most part, conflating Biblical references with confessions and declarations of personal passion, with more obvious tracks like ‘Hard On For Love’ acting as ballast. Your Funeral… My Trial ultimately feels rather incomplete, but is a signpost to greater things to come. (LISTEN)

14. The Firstborn Is Dead (1985)

Nick Cave

Moving slightly away from the moody carnage of their debut the previous year, The Firstborn Is Dead saw them embark upon the savage elaborations of the blues and other American roots music for which their ‘80s output would become so celebrated. This is demonstrated nowhere more perfectly than the stunning opener ‘Tupelo’, which opens with ominous bass rumbles and thunderclaps, seems to take place in a gnarled, William Faulkner-inspired landscape full of malevolent figures approaching “yonder on the horizon”. One of the very best early Bad Seeds tracks, amid the apocalyptic religious imagery it also references the birth of Elvis Presley and the stillbirth of his twin, Jesse.

However, from this point on the album is strikingly minimalist, for the most part doing away with the clattering arrangements of its predecessor, The Bad Seeds taking up more of a supporting role than in the past. The twanging ‘Say Goodbye To The Little Girl Tree’, a suicide song and a mutation of the blues of Charley Patton and Skip James, and the sludgy bass wanderings of ‘Knockin’ On Joe’, owe their strange power to the absence of volume. Obsessing about the subjects traditional to southern rural blues – trains, storms and sin – it showed Cave to be an instinctive interpreter of arcane, specialised forms of music, something he would explore further in the covers album Kicking Against The Pricks. A short album of just seven tracks, The Firstborn Is Dead is the sound of a band undergoing yet another transition. (LISTEN)

13. The Good Son (1990)

One of the most surprising U-turns in Cave’s career, the resplendent ballads of The Good Son came directly after the lusty Tender Prey and must have come as a slight disappointment to those wanting more of ‘The Mercy Seat’, and indeed sparked short-sighted comments that its author had somehow gone soft, or sold out. However, Cave had recently married his first wife, Brazilian journalist Viviane Carneiro, and wanted to explore his balladeering, populist side – albeit bringing his characteristic darkness to proceedings. The sweet, sweeping piano and strings of opener ‘Foi Na Cruz’, a gorgeously understated moment, would certainly have caught many off guard. But this versatility and willingness to wrong-foot his audience is one of many reasons that Cave should be celebrated.

The Good Son, though it is uneven, contains several wonderful tracks, with back-to-back mid-album highlights ‘The Weeping Song’ and ‘The Ship Song’ acting as opposite sides of the same emotional coin (torment vs satisfaction) and as the thematic core of the album. The call-and-response conceit of the former, seeing Cave and Bargeld trading lines, is highly dramatic and theatrical, and the latter a soaring declaration of intense love indebted to Scott Walker’s finest solo material. The title track is an absorbing re-telling of the Bible’s prodigal son story, and ‘The Hammer Song’ and ‘Lucy’ are other compelling high-points. The Good Son finds Cave singing with straight-faced sincerity, making it a beguiling oddity amid the violent intensity of so much of his ‘80s and early ‘90s output. (LISTEN)

12. Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! (2008)

Nick Cave

Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! is possibly the most invigorating Bad Seeds album as a pure rock experience, clearly given impetus by the first Grinderman album which appeared in the four year gap between it and the double album blowout of Abbatoir Blues / The Lyre Of Orpheus, as well as Cave and Ellis’ soundtrack work on The Assassination Of Jesse James. Emboldened by the experience, Cave and The Bad Seeds were able to approach their first album for four years, and their first since turning 50, with renewed energy. Consequently, DLD!!! snarls with dark humour, blasphemous and overtly sexual lyrics, and a great deal of the raw lust that characterised their earliest work.

Essentially, the energy of Grinderman is repurposed and retooled to the context of a full Bad Seeds line-up. Kicking off with the lead single and title track, we get loose-limbed, swampy minimalist rock with The Bad Seeds sounding tighter than ever before. This sense of hard-headed, business-like endeavour continues in the fuzzy garage rock of ‘Albert Goes West’ and the schlocky Hammer Horror of ‘Night Of The Lotus Eaters’ and the cacophonous ‘Hold On To Yourself’, which sees demonic Farfisa organ enter the mix. In these moments, Cave almost channels a previous incarnation of himself, the arm-flailing, crazy-eyed soothsayer of Tender Prey, and it provided a fine sequel to the bone-shaking Abbatoir Blues that had reinvigorated The Bad Seeds’ career.

It isn’t all straightforward power, however, as The Bad Seeds let up to allow shades of grey into the mix. ‘We Call Upon The Author’ posits God as an absence, with Cave hectoring and demanding an explanation as to the state of the world, while the creeping ‘Jesus Of The Moon’ features Ellis’ scraping gypsy violin at the forefront of the mix. The stunning closer ‘More News From Nowhere’ is the kind of sprawling masterpiece that Dylan used to end his most ambitious albums in the ‘60s, and ends things on a satisfyingly unresolved note. Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! is how rock musicians are supposed to age, and it’s an illustration of just how brilliant Nick Cave is that such a warmly regarded and immensely enjoyable album should only be a third of the way up this list. (LISTEN)

11. From Her To Eternity (1984)

Nick Cave

The Bad Seeds’ debut is a curious beast, seeming to dovetail naturally with Cave’s work with The Birthday Party and yet, in many obvious ways, acting as a distinct departure from it. However, it’s the earliest demonstration of Nick Cave as shapeshifter, determined to break out of established modes of operation and challenge his audience (at this moment, negligible in size) to come along with him. Thus, we get From Her To Eternity, an experimental album with a skeletal arrangement that relies just as much on silence as it does on volume.

The title track is spectacular, with wild stabs of noise courtesy of Blixa Bargeld and his time in sonic terrorists Einstürzende Neubauten, sounds like the world is about to end as the song implodes and collapses around The Bad Seeds and Cave’s manic incantations. Even now, it’s a stalwart of The Bad Seeds’ live show, the last connection with a dim and distant past and the first version of Cave that most fans can recall. However, The Bad Seeds are just as important to From Her To Eternity, with all five members of the group working in tandem. The claustrophobic cover of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Avalanche’ is alarmingly quiet and menacing, the absence of noise just as unsettling.

But those imperfections, those unexpected lurches in mood and conceit, are part of what makes it so compelling. Contrast the utter blackness of ‘Saint Huck’ with the surprisingly poignant cover of Elvis Presley’s ‘In The Ghetto’ (the latter included only on CD versions), or the almost musique concrète of ‘Cabin Fever!’ with the dragging, wearying ‘Wings Off Flies’ – it doesn’t make thematic sense for such tracks to exist side by side, but in the context of the weird internal logic of Cave’s vision on From Her To Eternity, it does. Suspend all prejudices you may have, and enjoy this startling and moving album for what it is. (LISTEN)

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