The Student Playlist

Showcasing the Best New Music, Curating the Classics

FROM WORST TO BEST: Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds

10. Henry’s Dream (1992)

Nick Cave

Though it’s an eternal favourite among fans, I must confess it took me a very long time to truly understand why Henry’s Dream is quite so highly regarded. A return to noisier, more violent terrain after the restraint of The Good Son it might be, but for ages I found it to be slightly blustery, with the volume masking an indecision in terms of direction. Like all the best slow-burners, though, its charms were revealed through repeated listens, enough for it to sneak into the highest tier of Cave releases (which constitutes ten of his 17 albums, as far as I’m concerned). Ask me to compile this list again in five years’ time, and Henry’s Dream could well be higher.

The Bad Seeds deal in their usual stock-in-trade – songs of suffering and sin, wrapped with Old Testament imagery of vengeance. So far, so Nick Cave, you might say; nothing that wasn’t explored more thoroughly and more entertainingly in Tender Prey. But Henry’s Dream is significant as a turning point in his career, the first record of his to actively seek out a wider audience. With all the trappings of contemporary production techniques (it benefits from true hi-fidelity, absolutely roaring out of the speakers where previous albums sounded ever so slightly murky). This is instantly detectable in the cataclysmic opener ‘Papa Won’t Leave You, Henry’, with ringing acoustic guitars and string arrangements embellishing the mix and transforming it into something truly widescreen.

Throughout, Cave’s vocal delivery is sincere and full-blooded, and his storytelling versatile enough to support the songs that cover romance, violence and vulgarity all at once as The Bad Seeds expertly shapeshift to support him in whatever mood he’s trying to communicate. On this album, perhaps more than any other, the six members are truly a band, each as vital as the next, with Cave only a kind of ‘first among equals’. This is perhaps best shown on the brilliant ‘John Finn’s Wife’, in which the narrator seems to have been provoked out of lust to murder the husband. The guttural screams of ‘Jack The Ripper’ and lamenting of ‘I Had A Dream, Joe’ are other great examples of this passion. However, amid the chaos is ‘Straight To You’, a simple hymn-like statement of utter devotion that seems to expand to fill every available space, and the show stopping oddity of ‘Christina The Astonishing’. Henry’s Dream is the first real example of just how varied The Bad Seeds could be, and every subsequent great accomplishment of Cave’s can be traced back to it. (LISTEN)

09. No More Shall We Part (2001)

An often overlooked moment in Cave’s admittedly rich catalogue, No More Shall We Part took a rather long time in coming, with the four years between it and The Boatman’s Call still representing the longest gap between any two Bad Seeds albums or side-projects. At well over an hour in length, containing no obvious singles, and very few songs you can even imagine being performed live, it’s another instance of Cave in reflective, contemplative mood at his piano. Many of the lyrical conceits here seem to suggest Cave as some kind of shut-in convalescent, gazing out of his window at a 19th century, Wuthering Heights-esque rural English landscape conjured up by some accompanying work by The Bad Seeds that’s so beautifully understated you hardly notice it, widening and deepening the panoramas suggested by some of Cave’s most poetic work to date.

This helpless wistfulness is not particularly biographical, as in the previous four years Cave had married his second wife, Susie Bick, and had twin sons. Perhaps that new sense of stability in his life is most closely reflected in his approach to Christianity, once taunting and irreverent but now much more mature and considered (take ‘God Is In The House’), and in truth this was a change that had started with the unmitigated heartbreak of The Boatman’s Call. But here, the primary theme is romance, dwelled upon in cinematic style and delivered without the sentimentality that would make it false. Aside from Cave’s luxuriant, glissando piano-playing, Warren Ellis’ tremulous violin is often the key accompaniment, and the addition of the Canadian folk singer sisters Kate and Anna McGarrigle is a masterstroke for tracks like ‘Hallelujah’ and ‘Gates To The Garden’.

Elsewhere, the album’s two lengthy singles ‘As I Sat Sadly By Her Side’ and ‘Fifteen Feet Of Pure White Snow’ contain memorable piano motifs and nail down that sense that the world is quietly going to hell outside Cave’s window and might just spill in through his front door, underscored by the restrained, baroque accompaniments. The only time The Bad Seeds really get let off the leash is on ‘Oh My Lord’, as that brooding sense of disquiet crescendos into a full-on apocalypse. It all adds up to perhaps the most mysterious and unknowable of Cave’s albums – and, on a personal level, since No More Shall We Part was the first Bad Seeds album I ever bought (a very odd place to start!), I found its author’s personality all the more intriguing and instantly sought to discover more. But nothing else in his catalogue is quite like this, and it retains a special place in my heart. (LISTEN)

08. Murder Ballads (1996)

Nick Cave

In many ways, Murder Ballads is the quintessential Nick Cave album, the record which, as rock’s laureate and authority on all things iconoclastic, violent and destructive, he was born to make. Understandably (or weirdly, for such a brutal record) it at last brought him to a mainstream audience, boosted by the much-celebrated duet with Kylie Minogue ‘Where The Wild Roses Grow’ which gave him his first (and only) UK Top 20 single and a ‘Top of the Pops’ performance. Murder Ballads, as the title suggests, is plain and forthright in its intentions, consisting of arrangements of traditionals and original compositions, which either extrapolate from known folk tales or are entirely contrived by Cave himself. For pure entertainment value, it’s an astonishing achievement.

Murder Ballads saw the introduction of a second drummer, Jim Sclavunos, and once again saw The Bad Seeds in effortless form, embracing as wide and diverse a range of musical styles as any other record in their repertoire. The hulking opener ‘Song Of Joy’ is an unsettling sign of things to come, the band conjuring up massive gales of sound, and this tendency continues for the rest of the album, with The Bad Seeds creating vivid, nightmarish backdrops and twisted dreamscapes for Cave’s storytelling to come to life. The gripping, rollicking fun of ‘The Curse Of Millhaven’, where a 15 year old girl is revealed to be the perpetrator of mass murder and agent of sabotage, is one of the highlights, as is the eponymously named traditional adaptation of the legend of the “bad motherfucker called Stagger Lee”, pumped up and swaggering almost to the point of absurdity but gleefully balancing just on the edge.

The aforementioned Kylie duet, an adaptation of the traditional folk ballad ‘Down In The Willow Garden’, an admission of guilt by a man awaiting execution for killing his lover, is a perfect mixture of styles with Kylie’s breathy performance beautifully counterpointing Cave’s low register and dispassionate narrative. The fine ‘Henry Lee’, a duet with PJ Harvey in which she’s the murderer and Cave (maybe) the victim, swaps roles and is notable because, by all accounts, they were in the midst of a passionate love affair at the time. The 15-minute epic ‘O’Malleys Bar’, is cruel but wickedly, blackly funny as its narrator goes into minute details of his atrocities during his internal monologue.

After nine songs of such blood-soaked savagery and bleak philosophy, it seems blackly ironic that the final track should be a gentle cover of Dylan’s ‘Death Is Not The End’, as the album’s full cast of guest stars, plus Shane McGowan and Cave’s ex-girlfriend and bandmate Anita Lane, assemble (or re-animate themselves) to deliver a line each in a Band Aid-style arrangement. In this way, truly, Murder Ballads is an embarrassment of riches, as Cave telescopes in and explores just one of the many facets of his songwriting repertoire and revels in it, staring into the abyss and allowing it to swallow and become him. (LISTEN)

07. Tender Prey (1988)

Nick Cave

The clear highlight of The Bad Seeds’ early work – crudely speaking, everything before Henry’s Dream – 1988’s Tender Prey is the first truly iconic album Nick Cave completed, and one whose artwork you occasionally see adorning T-shirts even now. Essentially, this album was the point at which Cave could truly be considered as a great songwriter, up there with the likes of Cash and Dylan, and that reputation is down to one track – the masterful centrepiece ‘The Mercy Seat’, one of two signature Cave songs alongside ‘Red Right Hand’, which takes the venerated tradition of the prison inmate anthem and takes it to new, terrifying highs (or should that be depths?).

Built on punishing, unrelenting military drums and guitars and a sheet of dissonance created by a bass guitars smacked with drumsticks, the pressure cooker of taut, white-knuckle tension builds as Cave’s persona, an inmate awaiting execution by electric chair, approaches death and likens his method of execution to God’s throne in heaven (from which “all history does unfold”). Guilty or not, it will provide him a passage to salvation, though it takes forever to come as the coda just keeps on going, building imperceptibly and bringing the narrator’s final moment frighteningly close to the listener. ‘The Mercy Seat’ is a quite astonishing song, a spellbinding force of (misplaced) righteousness and manic theology, and one that you could credibly argue that Cave hasn’t equalled since.

Of course, nothing could possibly follow that, but the rest of Tender Prey gives it a damn good go. The diabolical ‘Deanna’, featuring gruesomely violent and sexual lyrics as The Bad Seeds turn everything up to 11, comes very close. However, it’s Cave’s knack for balladry and songcraft that really stands out amid those two moments of greatness, his words alone enough to hold the attention of the listener on tracks like ‘Up Jumped The Devil’ (“I was born on the day that my poor mother died / I was cut from her belly with a stanley knife / my daddy did a jig with the drunk midwife”) or ‘Mercy’ (“my death, it almost bored me / so often was it told”). With virtually all instrumentation handled by Cave and his long-term lieutenants Harvey and Bargeld, Tender Prey goes through a cycle of moods but each track very much feels of a piece with the whole. (LISTEN)

06. Push The Sky Away (2013)

Nick Cave

You might be surprised to see Push The Sky Away this high up our list, considering it’s not had much time to properly percolate and remain within fans’ consciousness as his most celebrated works. But pretty much instantly, and every time I’ve listened to it since, Cave’s 15th album scans as yet another masterpiece. Even the very greatest artists so rarely make their best work in their fifties, but Push The Sky Away is a mature, thought-provoking and thoroughly engrossing exercise in restraint, and all the more surprising as it was the first album Cave made without Mick Harvey, his longest and closest collaborator going all the way back to the formation of The Boys Next Door in the mid-‘70s.

What’s so astonishing about Push The Sky Away is The Bad Seeds’ consistent ability to create drama from such a limited range. Rather than see Harvey’s departure as a loss, they fearlessly explore the possibility of life without him. Welcoming back Barry Adamson to the line-up for the first time since 1986, it’s easily the sparsest and most restrained album in their catalogue, even taking into account No More Shall We Part and The Boatman’s Call, but despite the stripped-down, spectral nature the band still packs a hefty emotional punch to go with Cave’s brooding, ruminative lyrics. Check out the menacing, skeletal bass on ‘Water’s Edge’, or the spidery instrumentation on ‘We No Who U R’ or the faintest vibrating of organs on the sepulchral title track which closes the album. Nobody could possibly argue against the sheer beauty, majesty, and downright dignity of it.

But amid the ghostly reveries there’s the album’s twin centrepieces, ‘Jubilee Street’ and ‘Higgs Boson Blues’, both masterful exercises in tension and release. The latter sees Cave creating the songwriting equivalent of a word cloud with bizarre, tangential references, drawing on every ounce of experience in his lengthy career to deliver something truly magnificent. In both cases, the situation never detonates with the kind of force we’ve come to expect, but the underlying sense of menace remains. While anybody listening to it for the first time and expecting visceral thrills will be disappointed, with only a few listens one finds that Push The Sky Away is every bit as weighty and stimulating as their classic works. (LISTEN)

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