Cave and co's career at its crepuscular best
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds have led a career filled with stories. In addition to the coming and going of band members—whose own personalities and sounds have embellished their legacy with filmic significance—the Bad Seeds’ albums are often received more like literary works than rock’n’roll records: studied and revered for their symbolism, characters, and plot twists. The same thing that makes it difficult for the band to represent themselves with a standard “Best Of” collection also makes it difficult for newcomers to approach their work. Their biggest hit—the beatific Kylie Minogue duet “Where the Wild Roses Grow”— was an outlier on its album, 1994’s brooding Murder Ballads. Similarly, their mostly widely acclaimed releases — 1986’s Your Funeral… My Trial or 1997’s The Boatman’s Call — are hardly representative works: albums made more canonical by understanding the context surrounding them.
Lovely Creatures, a new multimedia set that spans three decades of the Bad Seeds’ career, is the closest the band has come to offering a definitive work, collecting key tracks from the group’s first fifteen albums (it stops just before last year’s masterwork Skeleton Tree). This is music that evolves in sudden thrashes of mood and vision; placing it in chronological order only further highlights the group’s refusal to be pinned down into a narrative. From their chaotic, nightmarish early recordings to the ghostly hymns that close the set, these songs present the Bad Seeds’ unparalleled gifts for disorienting listeners and deconstructing their own sound. It’s called Lovely Creatures—a reference to a song from Murder Ballads — but drummer Jim Sclavunos finds an even more fitting term in the box’s extraordinary liner notes: these are “exquisite corpses.”
Lovely Creatures exists in a wide variety of editions. The most extensive is a 3xCD box that comes with a DVD and a 200-page book of critical essays, interviews, photographs, and memorabilia. It’s a gorgeous collection that illustrates the care and time this band puts into telling their story. Originally planned for release in autumn 2015, Lovely Creatures was shelved after Cave’s family tragedy and the resulting Skeleton Tree album took precedent. “Time became ancient history in a heartbeat as circumstances beyond my control took hold,” he explains in a brief afterword, “Now it seems the time is right to recognise the Bad Seeds and their many achievements.” Lovely Creatures excels in representing those successes. As with all of Cave’s albums, it’s attributed to the band as a whole, eschewing any extracurricular work the members have been involved in (meaning, no material from the pre-Bad Seeds group the Birthday Party, or their mid-2000’s side project Grinderman, or recent Nick Cave/Warren Ellis film scores). Even without those parts of the story, the group’s range is handedly apparent in the breadth of material presented.
Throughout the Bad Seeds’ career, Nick Cave carefully constructed their mythology, writing (and selectively covering) songs within a lineage of poetically-inclined journeymen, from John Lee Hooker and Johnny Cash to Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan. While he’s reluctantly earned the nickname “the grandfather of goth,” Cave has always aspired to more universal shades of darkness. “To be underground, you need to be extreme and you need to be doing something new,” he says stoically in a 1991 interview clip on the accompanying DVD, “I never thought I was doing anything new.” As such, Cave’s inspiration came from the oldest concepts imaginable: Old Testament themes of love and death and grief and madness. These are subjects that reappear through these songs with the frequency of Mick Harvey’s percussive thrashes and Warren Ellis’ ambient loops. Cave’s obsessions adapted and evolved along with his music.
Whether in the theatrical voyeurism of “From Her to Eternity” or the twisted devotion of “God Is In The House”, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds always play against each other to better illustrate the visceral tension within their material. Their live shows, collected on the visual component to the box, are often where these songs came alive: a Los Angeles performance of the epic “Jubilee Street” finds the band vibrating and transforming, while the studio version merely alludes to it. Many of the recordings on Lovely Creatures explore their greatest moments of dissonance. In “Babe, You Turn Me On”, the Bad Seeds proceed with the tender whimsy of a wedding band on a beach, while Cave gets as graphic as is allowed on record. “You turn me on,” he sings, “Like an idea, like an atom bomb.” Just after, he emits a thunderous explosion into the mic: it’s unclear whether this is meant to illustrate the bomb or the idea—both equally destructive entities in Cave’s hands.
Other songs, like the vulgar “Stagger Lee” or a gnarly rendition of “I’m Gonna Kill That Woman”, illustrate the darkest reaches of the mind, exorcising demons both literal and figurative. “My songs may be using characters and the narratives may appear fictitious but they are all very much reflections of myself,” Cave has claimed, “I recognize them, with a shudder, in the same ways one sees their reflection in the mirror.” It’s the opposite answer most songwriters would give about work that portrays serial murderers and sexual deviants. But Cave has always been fascinated by the moment where fiction and real life converge. Tracks like 2004’s “There She Goes, My Beautiful World” and 2008’s “We Call Upon the Author” find him reflecting upon (and laughing at) the creative process, as the Bad Seeds explode with raucous energy. Cave’s bandmates always seem to drum up the most excitement through songs that require reflection and solitude: spoiling the mood is how they get their kicks.
But just like Cave’s writing, which evolved from narrative-based horror stories into more shapeless dreamscapes over the course of thirty years, the Bad Seeds’ performances shifted into something more elusive as well. You can hear their various stabs at maturity throughout the set. In the Rolling Stones-indebted country of “He Wants You”, led by Blixa Bargeld’s pedal steel, or the barroom balladry of “People Ain’t No Good”, they worked toward a sound that reflected their growing interest in ambience and atmosphere—not just accompanying Cave but swirling around him like mist rolling off the sea. By the time you get to “Push The Sky Away”, the final songs on the set, the group have made themselves as scarce as possible: providing only haunting background vocals and ghostly bursts of synth.
“Push The Sky Away”, with a melody at once eerie and uplifting, reflects Cave’s growing interest in penning simpler, statelier records (Although, were they included, his Grinderman records, featuring fellow Bad Seeds Warren Ellis, Martyn Casey and Jim Sclavunos, would dismiss that notion entirely—with their jarring bursts of lust and violence). Backed by a band with equal capabilities to sooth and to terrorize, Cave’s songbook is reflected on Lovely Creatures as deep and rich as the mysteries that inspired it. Whether this is your first initiation to the band or a souvenir after many miles traveled with them, it makes clear that there are still many more stories to tell—more beauty and evil left to uncover.
WARREN ELLIS, THOMAS WYDLER, JIM SCLAVUNOS
The trajectory of the Bad Seeds is a complicated story. What was the hardest part of telling it over the course of just two (or three, on the deluxe version) discs?
Warren Ellis (1997 – present): What to leave out is always difficult the bigger the catalogue becomes. That was part of the idea behind making the compilations different for the 2 and 3 set editions. The band has changed sound so often and hopefully that’s reflected on Lovely Creatures. As is the variety of songs Nick has written over the years. It’s by no means definitive.
The DVD collects some incredible live footage—some looks to be transferred from VHS and others from YouTube. How does the Bad Seeds’ live show interact with your studio output? How has it evolved over your career and why is it crucial to the band’s legacy?
Thomas Wydler (1986 – Present): To play live is completely different to the creative studio process. In the studio we create a new sound with every new record. It is not our style to play the same all the time.
Jim Sclavunos (1996 – present): The songs all take on a new life when we perform them live. First and foremost they inevitably change from the album versions when we adapt them to play them live; but then over the course of a tour and moreover the course of many successive tours, the songs continue to evolve and shift, sometimes dramatically. Even when we decide to revert to the ”original version” of a song — an earlier arrangement such as how it might have sounded on a record – it’s still somehow informed by all the other different versions we’ve come up with over time.
WE: The live band seems a very different beast to the band in the studio. On stage is where the songs are honed. Not all the songs make it. In the studio I guess the energy is more internalised and intense in a different way. The stage always brings a certain drama to the proceedings.
The deluxe set closes with the title track of 2013’s Push the Sky Away, stopping just before last year’s Skeleton Tree. Does that record feel like the start of a new era?
JS: There’s some kind of evolutionary flow that runs through the entire body of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds output over the span of the band’s existence; but for me personally every album I’ve been involved in since joining the band has felt like a bit of a re-start, and Skeleton Tree is no exception. Whenever one goes in to make a new album I think it’s only natural to move on from where one’s last musical efforts left off but also that you will look to bring in something new and different, while keeping an ear out for ideas that somehow strike an inner chord. When you set up creative challenges for yourself, it can prompt unexpected results that keep things fresh.
WE: Hopefully each record signals some kind of new era. Skeleton Tree feels like a launch pad for the next album, what not to do and hopefully where to go will reveal itself. Skeleton Tree will find it’s place in the catalogue, live it seems to have already. It was always going to be a different kind of album.
For fans who are beginning their journey into the Bad Seeds’ catalogue with Lovely Creatures, where do you recommend going next?
TW: Get the record Push The Sky Away.
WE: Lovely Creatures feels like a good place to start. I’d suggest Your Funeral My Trial and the B sides and Rarities as a place to go.
JS: I recommend Skeleton Tree as it’s our most recent release. It captures a lot of where we’re at as a band right now and it will be key in setting the course for where we might end up next. But I can wholeheartedly recommend any of our albums as a worthy starting point for delving deeper into the band’s oeuvre; each one embodies in its own way a unique moment on Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ timeline.
What does the rest of this year look like for the Bad Seeds?
JS: Touring North America and Europe are the obvious focus this year; but who knows what else might come up? We’ve already done some very satisfying dates in Australia and New Zealand earlier this year, so we’re psyched for all the upcoming dates and very keen to explore what the current incarnation of the touring band is capable of.
WE: Lots of touring on the back of Skeleton Tree, The States and Europe, Australia was completed in January, and hopefully start on a new album.
INTERVIEW: SAM SODOMSKY
The July 2017 issue of Uncut is now on sale in the UK – featuring our exclusive interview with Roger Waters on the cover. Elsewhere in the issue, there are new interviews with Evan Dando, Jason Isbell, Steve Van Zandt and Kevin Morby and we look at shoegazing and the Scottish folk revival. We review The Beatles, Fleet Foxes, U2, Van Morrison and Dan Auerbach. Our free CD features 15 tracks of the month’s best music, including Can, Richard Dawson, Saint Etienne, Ride, The Unthanks, Songhoy Blues and more.
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