The Guide to Getting into Nick Cave
From The Birthday Party to The Bad Seeds, the legendary artist's career spans more than four decades. Here's how to begin.
Nick Cave, July, 1997 / Getty Images
First, regardless of how you identify, tuck in your shirt. It will get untucked before dawn, but let's start the evening like you mean it. If you identify male, top three buttons undone because all your previous notions of sleaze are to be tossed out the window now—in your new era as a Nick Cave fan. Sorry, no more band shirts. Save that till you're my age and giving up is no longer a choice.
I'm not going to insist you read Faulkner. I haven't. But you should at least skim a Flannery O'Connor book. Southern gothic is at least as important to understanding Nick Cave as the bat cave variety. You can read Cave's 1989 novel, And The Ass Saw The Angel, if you like, but reading books by musicians—hell, reading any music books at all—will never do as much for your hair as good pomade and two days without a shower will. Your hair is now extremely important.
You're about to become a Nick Cave fan! This is so exciting. I feel like we're practicing kissing on red velvet pillows in a room with more shades than windows.
Black suit wearers and dark crooner aficionados of all stripes can argue till the bats come home about which Nick Cave album is best to start with. I won't argue it doesn't matter, everything does now, but don't lose focus on the main thing: You're about to become a Nick Cave fan! This is so exciting. I feel like we're practicing kissing on red velvet pillows in a room with more shades than windows.
So you want to get into: Early Nick Cave?
If, like God, you're inclined to start at the beginning, start with Cave's first proper band, The Boys Next Door. The Boys Next Door were the closest Cave would ever come to a garage rock band, if said garage rock band only listened to Roxy Music. The contrarian in me wants to claim that "Shivers," written by the late Roland S. Howard when he was appropriately 16, was not Boys Next Door's finest song, but it, being one of the finest distillations of adolescent cool/uncool want ever, is. Boy's Next Door sole official album, Door Door, in all its saxophone driven pep, is more fun than historical curio but maybe not by much. 'Shivers" though. Boy. Get ready to unquit smoking. Shivers would also set the Nick Cave and Co. template of them writing songs so good that they quickly grew tired of requests for them. (See also "Release The Bats")
Some, like Wikipedia apparently, consider The Boys Next Door album the first Birthday Party album. Fuck that. Maybe the lineup (Cave, Howard, Phill Calvert, Mick Harvey, Tracy Pew) was largely the same, but London and heroin made them different humans. Shed skin was replaced with soul sickness and cowboy hats. All the pop tendency of their Melbourne band was replaced with Beefheart lurch (not sure how much I'm supposed to be spelling out here. If you don't have a google button or are just disinclined to curiosity, Captain Beeheart was a highly influential blues decontsructor who sounded like a gas oven being carried up winding stairs by men of unequal strength. He's real good), Stooges-esque drive (they even covered "Loose" from Iggy Pop's proto-punk band on a John Peel radio session). Nick Cave himself vocally went from being merely charismatic to full on fucking the apocalypse.
Get ready to unquit smoking.
Terrifying and hilarious, The Birthday Party fused rockabilly and pure spasm. In songs like "Mutiny in Heaven" and "Zoo Music Girl" intravenous drug use and sex are portrayed as glorious self-flagellation. Nick Cave was setting a career template of bodies colliding through a romantic space, where the divine and the infernal sweat together. The time signatures were complicated, the drums pummeling, and songs started with lyrics like, "Hands up, who wants to die!" It was rarely a question. I understand there's a "thing" against "Best of" albums but Birthday Party "Hits" gives a fine overview of a band that influenced, well, Jesus Lizard, Celebration, and a bunch of 90s noise rock bands that I'll never convince you to care about. They should have influenced more bands but people aren't great and most often when a band sites Birthday Party as an influence it just means they have a drug problem, are going to hit on your girlfriend when you're not in the room, and can't be fucked to write a chorus to save their short lives.
It would be an egregious omission to not mention Cave partner/collaborator/fellow aesthetic influencer, Anita Lane. She traveled with Birthday Party from Melbourne to London, contributed lyrics to a number of songs, was briefly in The Bad Seeds, and without her we'd not have the dry dread of either "A Dead Song" or "Dead Joe" and life would be worthless. Welcome to the car smash, indeed.
Playlist: "Shivers" / "Friends Of My World" / "Release The Bats" / "Zoo Music Girl" / "Nick The Stripper" / "Loose (from the Peel Sessions)" / "Dead Joe" / "Cry" / "Sonny's Burning" / "A Dead Song" / "Mutiny In Heaven"
So you want to get into: Death Nick Cave?
It's emotionally exhausting to fixate too heavily on Nick Cave as an elder statesmen of morbidity. As indebted to Leonard Cohen as some of his solo work may be, there is very little that's merely "sad" about Cave's music. And that's not even taking into account some general misunderstandings about the wit of a great amount of gothic music. It's just that "depressing" or whatever fails to take into account the myriad ways Cave addresses sorrow and despair. His revelry in violent end, on fourteen minute tomb-burners like "O'Malley's Bar," and his earliest "hit," "The Mercy Seat," (an organ and loops ode to dying in the electric chair that served as many a young alt's mix-tape introduction to Cave pre-Scream fame) is no sadder than the gorgeous splatter of 70s Italian horror cinema. Just depends what one considers beautiful.
I argue this working under the assumption that, at their core, "you should smile more" and puppy-in-Heaven parables aside, most people know that they are going to die. Life is finite and, current and ancient impulses towards sentimentality and religiosity aside, that's all it is. Nick Cave just knows we, quite reasonably, feel pretty bad about this, and he sings about these feelings and all our potential endings as evocatively as he can.
Arguably the best entry point for becoming a Nick Cave fan is to begin with his first Bad Seed death dirge, "From Her To Eternity." In the Wim Wenders move, Wings of Desire, Cave internally says "only one more song and it's over. But I'm not going to tell you about a girl. I'm not going to tell you about a girl." He grabs the mic, the film goes from black and white to color, and he says, "I want to tell you about a girl." What follows is tension, tension, tension, tension, release; unrequited passion that, while never implicitly spelled out, ends badly for someone.
This is as good a time as any to strongly plea that anyone who's interested in Nick Cave not give up after just a listen or two. We're talking about hypersexualized Old Testament as performed by an Elton John in, depending on the period, half or twice the amount of snakeskin. Sit with it for a bit.
Cave's 1990 album, The Good Son, with its homicidal, maybe Cain and Abel themed, title track, is few people's favorite in his catalog. It's far more subdued than the records that came before and the production arguably omits the grit of those while lacking the mastering fullness of Cave's early 90s work, when he was strangely embraced by the same alternative culture that was bopping along to Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins. The Good Son is my favorite Bad Seeds record, partially because it's the first Nick Cave album I bought, at the Berkshire Mall when I was 15, and I hated it because it didn't sound like Nitzer Ebb but I'd spent eight dollars on it and I swore to listen to it until it made sense. This is as good a time as any to strongly plea that anyone who's interested in Nick Cave not give up after just a listen or two. We're talking about hypersexualized Old Testament as performed by an Elton John in, depending on the period, half or twice the amount of snakeskin. Sit with it for a bit.
The aforementioned four albums from the early/mid 1990s that brought Nick Cave fully into the alternative mainstream were Henry's Dream, Live Seeds, Let Love In, and Murder Ballads. All four are great records, with plenty of pure Cave carnage, that I've never entirely trusted because they're so easy to love. This is dumb, of course, but please don't start with any of these. They're wonderful, full, driving, and chock-full of bangers. But I worry if you start with Let Love In, 80s era Cave will sound strange and thin and early aughts Cave will seem slow and you'll only listen to "Red Right Hand" over and over and die with visions of ex-cast members of Friends in your head. If we can't improve through Nick Cave, what's the point of faith at all? There are plenty of Nick Cave death songs on Murder Ballads. Feels redundant to go further into it, but the album also contains the Cave/PJ Harvey duet of the standard, "Henry Lee." In the 90s, we didn't need shipping. PJ Harvey did murder duets with Nick Cave.
"Dig, Lazarus, Dig!" off of the 2008 album of the same name, produced by Nick Launay (who deserves an entire "Guide to" section himself) is about as "fun," in its common usage, a song as one will hear from Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds. It's a proper organ call and response rave-up where all shirts can finally and forever be untucked. It's also about death and failure. "What do we know about the dead/and who actually cares?" Fun!
Playlist: "Mercy Seat" / "Dig, Lazarus, Dig!" / "Red Right Hand" / "O'Malley's Bar" / "The Good Son" / "Henry Lee" / "From Her To Eternity" / "Fifteen Feet of Pure White Snow" / "Tupelo"
So you want to get into: Lovely Nick Cave?
When not singing about murder or God, Nick Cave is the most romantic man alive (although often when singing about murder or God, Nick Cave is the most romantic man alive). For someone who is so romantic, who has written a few of the loveliest love songs, it's not easy to find that many of his songs that document true love without a trace of homicide drifting by to borrow some sugar. And sometimes his romanticism can be about rendering whatever story is on the docket in strains of high drama, not too removed from a Clint Eastwood western or a Murder City Devils song, but, occasionally, the song is simply about love. Perhaps because The Bad Seeds, even as membership shifts, consists of a transcontinental array of some of the world's better practitioners of dark and avant rock, Cave's starkest love songs are shockingly direct. The Bad Seeds, not discounting the strong wills involved (with Warren Ellis cast more and more often as an almost partner), is not a democracy. When a straight love song is called for, whether it be the full band "Straight To You" or the lyrically sublime, "Into My Arms," with only bass and piano to accompany the words, the band serves to lift the sentiment or to get out of its way. Other times, Cave combines his chief concerns, high drama and undying (at least) love, with a song like "(I'll Love You) Till The End of The World," from the Wim Wenders movie, where Cave combines heavenly choir and spoken word descriptors of a third earthly focus, the end of everything.
It's not easy to find that many of his songs that document true love without a trace of homicide drifting by to borrow some sugar.
While "Into My Arms" and "Straight To You" are the two go-to first dances, there's a lot to be said for mid-tempo stomps like "There She Goes, My Beautiful World," where gospel singers and barrelhouse piano join forces with references to Karl Marx and Jonny Thunders to woo as unsubtly as possible. (It's likely that in this case, the "world" Cave refers to is not a metaphor but rather the song is a love song to the actual earth. But we are not small minded here. Kiss that planet, young libertines.) On the same album, Abattoir Blues/Lyre of Orpheus, which over the course of two records can occasionally feel a tad boogie-era Stones (perhaps because it was the first Bad Seeds album without Blixa), "Supernaturally" is an endearingly odd song of desire that won't work at a wedding, but sometimes you need to love someone in a car.
It's tempting to call all of Nick Cave's love songs unsubtle but I'd be hard pressed to think of a truly affecting love song that isn't. If it's a love that makes you want to do anything other than set your arm on fire, maybe it's not love your feeling but an impulse to donate to NPR. That's also very worthy but if it's love, let the man sing. "The Ship Song" with its refrain of "come sail your ships around me/and burn your bridges down/we make a little history, baby/ every time you come around/come loose your dogs upon me…" is love song as contract between lovers who put on their good shoes to go to 7-11, and it's sung accordingly. Wouldn't it be wonderful to get out of these endless sweatpants for a day or lifetime?
Playlist: "Into My Arms" / "Straight To You" / "Supernaturally" / "There She Goes, My Beautiful World" / "The Ship Song" / "I Let Love In" / "Hard On For Love"
So you want to get into: Nick Cave Songs About Jesus, Getting Fucked Up, And One Song About Music Critics?
Nick Cave's relationship with the presumptive lord and savior is a complicated one. The man is ostensibly a Christian but he's never done anything other than grasp the profane with both hands, like he's handling a snake with no intention of letting go. He seems to believe in God with a capital "G" but without many of the ensuing comforts like salvation or an afterlife. As indicated in the heart-wrenching documentary, Once More Time with Feeling, about the recent death of his son, his faith is further challenged but seems intact—in his fashion, a faith to be interrogated, wrestled, occasionally mocked and then returned to. As he says in the understated and magnificent album, Push The Sky Away, "you gaze to the sky with your wide lovely eyes." On "Jesus Alone" off his album of grieving, "Skeleton Tree," Cave sings, over droning soundscape, "With my voice, I am calling you." It's not clear who is being called, and it's clear that no response is expected, but the call goes out all the same. Many of the characters in Nick Cave's songs, like the murderer in "Up Jumped The Devil," are surer of the opposition to God than any chance of redemption, but none seem to believe in the Devil in isolation.
Many of the characters in Nick Cave's songs, like the murderer in "Up Jumped The Devil," are surer of the opposition to God than any chance of redemption, but none seem to believe in the Devil in isolation.
If you believe in a God of sorts but punishment or non-intervention feel the most real, it's not unreasonable to get very fucked up. From his little known cover of "Rye Whiskey" (first available as a flexi-disk insert in Reflex Magazine) to the bar jukebox standard rager, "Brother My Cup Is Empty," Nick Cave sings about hard liquor fueled oblivion like it's a vocation. Sometimes the intoxication comes from within, as on the 14-minute journey through delirium that is "Babe, I'm On Fire," where every single band member, crew, extended family of man is name checked and their love hysteria both evoked and duly noted.
Cave's frisky side project, Grinderman (with Warren Ellis, Jim Sclavunos, and Martyn P. Casey) is more about being wasted, on multiple levels, than overt drinking. Grinderman is a loose and noisy, existing to revisit some of the hard blues templates of The Bad Seeds' eighties work (First Born Is Dead and the "Kicking Against The Pricks" covers album in particular) while indulging in more experimental sonics that didn't have a place in what the Bad Seeds were doing at the time (though the tension has been resolved with the textural broadening out and soundscaping of both Push The Sky Away and Skeleton Tree). "Indulge" being the key word, as, on "No Pussy Blues" and "When My Baby Comes," the band seems intent on fucking their way out of whatever trouble they've gotten themselves into.
No scholarly (attempt at) summation of the Nick Cave oeuvre would be complete without "Scum," the best song about music criticism ever written. Written about NME music writer, Matt Snow, who had the temerity to call a Bad Seeds album "disappointing." Over a staggering rhythm, Cave menaces the writer, calling him a "fuckin traitor, chronic masturbator, shitlicker, user, self-abuser…" and, perhaps worst of all, "the epitome of their type." In true Nick Cave fashion, the song starts with him spitting and ends with murder and an almost lovely image of the dead snow under a blue sky.
Playlist: "Wide Lovely Eyes" / "Brother My Cup Is Empty" / "No Pussy Blues" / "Black Betty" / "Rye Whisky" / "Jesus Alone" / "When My Baby Comes" / "Baby, I'm On Fire" / "Scum"
Zachary Lipez is the only person who could've written this. Follow him on Twitter.