05. Skeleton Tree (2016)
Skeleton Tree, the 16th Bad Seeds album, came into existence overcast by the context of unthinkable tragedy. In July 2015, Cave’s teenage son Arthur fell to his death from a cliff near Brighton, having been found to have been experimenting with LSD with friends at the time. The singer had always used tragedy as a creative conceit throughout his 30-year career, but for many it was hard to imagine him countenancing the use of something so personal and airing it on one of his albums.
Finishing sessions that had already commenced earlier in 2015 and had largely been completed, and accompanied by a documentary film One More Time With Feeling at the time of its release, Skeleton Tree was the sound of rock’s foremost authority on torment and destruction coming face-to-face with his own unimaginable grief. However, the record is not some unimaginable, overbearing monolith, and this is testament to its author’s unique songwriting. Cave’s personal loss is never front-and-centre – rather, it is a spectral presence that looms over the music and in its background, as wraithlike epics like ‘Jesus Alone’ and ‘Distant Sky’ uncoiled themselves in stately fashion.
Alluded to in fascinating, code-like couplets filled with imagery rather than being addressed head on, which would have been much too ugly an experience to document on something so comparatively throwaway as an album, the listener never feels like they’re intruding uncomfortably on Cave’s torment. His vocals are unquestionably human, full of vulnerability yet holding itself together because that is the only way we can collectively get through tragedy.
The Bad Seeds provided the most nebulous and unintrusive of accompaniments, taking a back seat as Cave’s writing skills were relied upon to do the heavy lifting, which it did with all the grace and strange insight you would expect. A striking and deeply poignant experience, Skeleton Tree was a masterclass in repose, humanity and dignity as well as instantly being regarded among Cave’s finest ever works. (LISTEN)
04. Let Love In (1994)
When I first started thinking about this list, Let Love In was my initial pick for top spot. Retaining the same line-up from Henry’s Dream, there was no better example in my mind of the intuition that The Bad Seeds had developed with each other and their leader by the ‘90s. On Let Love In, Cave’s fire-and-brimstone storytelling is scaled back in favour of portraits of the human condition, scene-setting, and character studies as he meditates on love and hate, good and evil, while The Bad Seeds do some of their most ornate, intricate work ever.
‘Red Right Hand’, certainly the most widely recognised Bad Seeds song because of its use in the Scream movies and the BBC series ‘Peaky Blinders’, is the thematic crux of the record. Of all the malevolent characters in Cave’s vast catalogue, the entity lurking on the edge of town “past the square, past the bridge, past the mills, past the stacks” and manipulating the wills of men so that they’re “one microscopic cog in his catastrophic plan”, is his most terrifying and enduring creation. The title is a reference to the vengeful hand of the Old Testament God as described in John Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’, manifested in Cave’s song by a mysterious “ghost… guru” figure, but his lyrics are full of powerful descriptors yet remain just oblique enough to be open to interpretation, all set to a creepy, foot-tapping shuffle and beautifully judged organ stabs and church bells that ratchet up the tension.
But the rest of the record isn’t overshadowed by this stunning centrepiece, as Let Love In is first and foremost a collection of astonishing songs. The Bad Seeds move through ballad and rocker alike with the same sense of intensity and commitment. The sublime resignation of ‘Nobody’s Baby Now’, of Cave saying a reluctant goodbye to a lover, and the meditative calm of ‘Ain’t Gonna Rain Anymore’, are counterpointed by lusty piledrivers like ‘Loverman’ and ‘Jangling Jack’, which positively reverberate with noise. Bookending the entire thing are two different versions of ‘Do You Love Me?’, the opener a thunderous howl of anguish and the closer a whisper of desperation, giving Let Love In a clear sense of thematic unity. In terms of sheer accessibility, and of the widest display of the talents of both Cave and his backing band, Let Love In should probably have won this list. If you were asked to recommend to a newcomer as to where to start in an exploration of Cave’s back catalogue, you’d be hard pushed to argue for anything else. (LISTEN)
03. Abbatoir Blues / The Lyre Of Orpheus (2004)
Following the poorly received Nocturama just a year before, Nick Cave was in a slightly compromised position after the departure of Blixa Bargeld, the man behind so much of The Bad Seeds’ trademark sound for two decades. Few, then, could have expected anything as superb as what was delivered. Abbatoir Blues / The Lyre Of Orpheus is a pretty much perfect entry point into Cave’s back catalogue, as for the price of single record the listener gets to fully experience both the riotous power and the emotional punch of The Bad Seeds in one go.
The decision to split the material into two distinct albums on separate discs – Abbatoir Blues, a return to the raucous, full-blooded sound of their classic work for the first time since Murder Ballads eight years previously, and The Lyre Of Orpheus, a further exploration of the gentle, florid and more expansive territory of No More Shall We Part – was a brilliant solution, otherwise an 82-minute experience would have collapsed under the sheer weight of ideas on display. But as a result, it isn’t really a double album but more of a Janus-like concept, two albums in the same package, each showcasing the two, utterly different modes of operation in which Cave and The Bad Seeds specialise.
Even though it’s nominally the ‘rock’ side, Abbatoir Blues has a surprising amount of depth and subtlety, also characterised by ringing melody rather in addition to power. With the stomping, primal gospel of ‘Get Ready For Love’ and the clangorous ‘There She Goes, My Beautiful World’, it’s instantly a massive improvement on their equivalents from Nocturama. However, there’s an emotional gravitas to the likes of ‘Let The Bells Ring’, a tribute to the recently deceased Johnny Cash, and ‘Hiding All Away’ and ‘Messiah Ward’, which build the tension slowly. But it’s The Lyre Of Orpheus that wins the imaginary contest in my mind as to which ‘side’ is better, with an unusually wide range of instrumentation coming into play to bring these sturdy, wholehearted yet gorgeously understated tracks to life.
The title track is a darkly humorous re-imagining of the Orpheus & Eurydice legend, featuring marital bickering, profanity and the titular lyre being used as a murder weapon. In some moments, The Bad Seeds disappear almost entirely, such as on the fragile ‘Breathless’, formed from only a light strum and a fanciful flute motif, but in others they all assemble to support Cave on the firm, stately ‘Easy Money’, ‘Supernaturally’ and ‘O Children’. The latter appeared at the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 in one of the most unlikely soundtracking agreements ever. Everything about The Lyre Of Orpheus is so breathtaking it’s hard to take it all in with one sitting, and provides the most natural dovetail to Abbatoir Blues. In all, one couldn’t possibly imagine a more graceful, complete reinvention of The Bad Seeds sound, or one that offered so many future directions to be explored. (LISTEN)
02. The Boatman’s Call (1997)
It may strike you as odd that, for all The Bad Seeds’ trademark blood and thunder, an album as preternaturally quiet as The Boatman’s Call should sit so near the summit of this list. But just as Murder Ballads was an in-depth exploration of Cave’s apocalyptically noisy side, The Boatman’s Call does the same for his tenderness and pure songwriting ability. For all the imagery and mythology of Cave’s career, The Boatman’s Call ironically wins out because of the stark absence of such adornments, instead opting for to present his anger, despair, anxiety and self-loathing in an up-front and honest manner, with absolutely minimal clutter and as non-intrusively arranged as possible. More than any other, it’s a Nick Cave album rather than a Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds album, but although his backing band barely intrudes upon the situation, very much playing in the darkness at the back of the stage behind their spot-lit leader, you’d miss them if they weren’t there.
Having spent his twenties and early thirties invoking the wrathful, vengeful God of the Old Testament in his irreligious way, as he approached his forties, the more merciful, New Testament God began to appeal as a presence (or absence) in Cave’s work, saying that he “found it difficult to despise things all the time” in a contemporary interview. Indeed, the very first lines of the opening track ‘Into My Arms’ are “I don’t believe in an interventionist God”. ‘Into My Arms’ is a solitary candle surrounded by darkness, tended to by Cave in quiet, forlorn hope that somebody is listening to his prayer, that despite his lack of faith he yearns for divine protection. This benevolent sense of spirituality, from someone who has never described himself as Christian, is a quite unexpected turn from a person who was singing just 12 months previously about bashing in Kylie Minogue’s head with a rock.
This atmosphere of tender, heart-rending desolation pervades the whole album, but The Boatman’s Call is not a miserable experience because Cave isn’t manipulating the listener in any way, nor is he playing the subject material for laughs, an impression reflected in the plain, monochrome artwork. In this way, it’s the purest distillation of his talent as a songwriter in his entire catalogue. The heartache is tangible, with his first marriage disintegrated a year previously and a short, passionate relationship with PJ Harvey also abruptly ended (her presence is clearly indicated on tracks like ‘Black Hair’, with its simple rhyme scheme repeated beyond absurdity to the point of manic obsession, and ‘West Country Girl’). Even where hope exists, it is brittle and believed in with trepidation that at any minute it might be snuffed out, such as on the desperate ‘(Are You) The One I’ve Been Waiting For?’. The end of romance is conflated with the ultimate loss, death, on ‘Brompton Oratory’. The sense of despair goes beyond personal connections and into the wider world (‘People Ain’t No Good’ and ‘Far From Me’).
The Boatman’s Call is stark, for sure, but The Bad Seeds support and nurture Cave’s writing with the barest of arrangements, keeping everything on just the right side of accessible for the listener. It takes a while to get under the skin, but it’s quite the most moving work in his discography, with more emotional power on display than all the cacophony of his more famous songs combined. Simply, it is one of the greatest heartbreak records in the rich history of rock. (LISTEN)
01. Ghosteen (2019)
Several elements went into the making of the curiously structured double-album Ghosteen – the “fever dreams” triggered by a bout of flu that Cave suffered the previous autumn; the Red Hand Files project over the last few years that brought down the barriers between fans and performer in a way that a mere social media presence simply couldn’t have done; and, of course, the horrifying death of Cave’s teenage son Arthur four years before. Announced abruptly and released within just a couple of weeks, it consisted of eight shorter tracks in the first half and two much longer ones, connected by a short spoken-word section, making up the second.
All of this made for an immensely intricate album to unpack, one which required several deep dives to fully understand, but even a cursory first inspection revealed Ghosteen to be a warmer, more detailed and considered study of grief than the raw, numbed desolation of Skeleton Tree three years ago. It’s worth bearing in mind that Ghosteen is the first album Cave composed in its entirety following his son’s tragic passing – Skeleton Tree, for all the analysis it was subjected to, had already been largely written and laid down, it must be remembered. In this way, Ghosteen is the more relevant work.
Thematically, as well as a vulnerable and open exploration of mourning and recovery, the album is a personal quest for meaning, about discovery of one’s place and purpose in the universe, and what it means to make an emotional and sincere connection in a world that sees individuals more atomised and alienated than at any point in human history. While it was centred primarily around Cave’s lyrics, the musical backdrop in which they’re contextualised was equally central to Ghosteen’s mood of solace and understanding. Warren Ellis’ gauzy analogue synthesisers provide an otherworldly, sometimes difficult but entirely fitting backdrop for Cave’s streams of dream logic and repeated references to love, loss and uneasy resolution.
The themes of Cave’s personal experience are obvious and littered throughout the record, despite never being stated explicitly – he’s far too clever a lyricist for that. Instead, there are signpost lyrics like “I am beside you / look for me” and “sometimes it’s better not to say anything”, and repetitions of phrases like “peace” and “return” that are both universally applicable for any listener but which can only be about one thing, if you know the context. Expressed with an exquisite and profound humanity, of the kind that pop music is usually extremely ill-suited to communicate, Ghosteen was a quite staggering artistic achievement, and the most beautiful music that Nick Cave has ever made. The passage of time will see it treated as one of the very greatest artistic achievements in field of popular music. (LISTEN)
Tags: Barry Adamson, Blixa Bargeld, Ed Biggs, from worst to best, George Vjestica, Hugo Race, Jim Sclavunos, Martyn P. Casey, Mick Harvey, Nick Cave, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Roland Wolf, Thomas Wydler, Warren Ellis
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