Geek obsession: Nick Cave
Why it’s daunting: Nick Cave is a creep. Or at least, he’s long cultivated and capitalized on his ominous appearance and persona, a mix of debauched tent-revivalist, junkie poet, gothic troubadour, and lately in Grinderman, a sleazy, mustachioed hustler. But over the course of his 30-plus year career—most of that spent with his longest-running, best-known band The Bad Seeds—Cave has substantiated his mystique with raw, bawdy, ecclesiastically orgasmic songs that aren’t afraid to flaunt their vulnerability. While his thicket of influences may seem impenetrable at first, he’s managed to consistently and credibly synthesize folk, blues, post-punk, classic pop songwriting, avant-garde noise-mongering, and a Weill-Brecht air of morbid theatricality. Lyrically, he dips his pen in the mingled venoms of debased spirituality and diseased lust—not to mention the runoff of the ruptured human heart—and delivers it all in an apocalyptic howl that can testify to the heavens as easily as whisper sweet temptations.
Possible gateway: Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds, Tender Prey
Why: Various anthologies of Nick Cave’s music exist, but when it comes to actually digging into his discography, 1988’s Tender Prey is the ideal first shovelful. The group’s fifth album is the sound of a ragged, erratic patch of darkness being pruned and sculpted—but only barely. Cave relocated his breakthrough post-punk band, The Birthday Party, to London from his native Australia in 1980, and The Bad Seeds grew from that lineup to encompass everything from gospel to cabaret to blues while retaining The Birthday Party’s aggressive attack and transgressive grime. Tender Prey, though, sought the sweet spot between deviance and refinement. The album’s signature track, “The Mercy Seat,” is a string-sawing, white-knuckle intro that never breaks into a conventional song, instead building and spiraling like a runaway locomotive to oblivion. Meanwhile, Cave acts out every primal impulse—from the sacred to the profane—he’d ever put into verse. Or tried to put out of his mind.
Next steps: There isn’t a piece of music with the name “Birthday Party” on it that isn’t essential. Barring compilations, the best to begin with is 1981’s Prayers On Fire. The group’s debut full-length nauseously balances the tentative weirdness of The Birthday Party’s early incarnation, The Boys Next Door, and the meandering swampiness of 1982’s Junkyard. There are traces of The Stooges, Captain Beefheart, and the era’s fertile post-punk eruption in Prayers, but for the most part, Cave and crew mangle rock ’n’ roll in a way no one had before—although many have tried since. Still, it’s punchy and concise enough to serve as an able baptism by fire.
The Bad Seeds had begun to grow a little rarified as the new millennium progressed, which set up Cave for potential disaster: his back-to-basics, midlife-crisis side project. Fortunately that project, Grinderman, channels Cave’s encroaching decrepitude as potently as The Birthday Party harnessed his animalistic youth. Both of the outfit’s albums, 2007’s Grinderman and 2010’s Grinderman 2, are worth their weight in lost hair and spent testosterone. The debut is the one to grapple with first; recorded in a mere four days with Cave on guitar, an instrument he rarely plays, Grinderman oozes infected riffs and dirty-old-man nastiness. Curiously, The Bad Seeds’ latest album, 2008’s vicious Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!, could almost pass as a Grinderman release—and because the bands share members, it has left fans wondering how the two might feed off each other in the future.
Cave has made some of the best albums of his career in recent years—2004’s sprawling, sumptuous Abattoir Blues/The Lyre Of Orpheus springs to mind—but it doesn’t hurt to get cozy with the basics first. The Bad Seeds’ sophomore album, The Firstborn Is Dead, came out in 1985, and it was the true, total break from The Birthday Party. Lush yet skeletal, the album reflects Cave’s growing fascination with Americana; with a title referencing Elvis’ stillborn twin and a lead track, “Tupelo,” that gorges itself on the King’s mythos, Firstborn also features covers of Bob Dylan and Blind Lemon Jefferson. Cave, though, filters that murky stew through his own coarse, chaotic soul.
Cave isn’t just about abrasion and shock. His love of the singer-songwriter tradition goes bone deep; he’s never been shy about his admiration of Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Leonard Cohen, Marianne Faithful, and PJ Harvey—all of whom he’s covered, collaborated with, or in the case of Harvey, been romantically involved with. Nowhere is that introspective side of his persona more evident than on The Boatman’s Call. Inspired by his brief tryst with Harvey, Cave turned the Bad Seeds’ 1997 album into a mostly solo affair, with him at the piano and crooning about lost loves and existential ills in the same breath. It’s a far cry from his hell-raising output—but it’s no less powerful.
Where not to start: As with most artists who release an album of covers, Cave indulged himself a bit on 1986’s Kicking Against The Pricks. Still, it’s an incredible record, and one that solidified his transformation from perverted, post-punk ghoul to perverse, post-everything icon. Granted, songs like John Lee Hooker’s “I’m Gonna Kill That Woman” and The Velvet Underground’s “All Tomorrow’s Parties” are obvious choices, but Jimmy Webb’s “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” and the gospel standard “Jesus Met The Woman At The Well”? The Bad Seeds’ 1996 album, Murder Ballads—a harrowing collection of exactly that—gave the band a surprise commercial triumph, but both the covers collection and the concept album should be saved for the initiated.
Cave’s output has always shown a strong cinematic quality, so it’s no surprise he’s had a long association with film. Either his band or his music has appeared in everything from Wings Of Desire to Shrek 2, and in recent years he’s created the soundtracks—most often with multi-instrumentalist Warren Ellis of The Bad Seeds and Grinderman—to numerous movies, including The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, The Road, and a film Cave wrote, the brutal Western The Proposition. Cave, it turns out, is a consistently brilliant and sympathetic accompanist—but tailored to specific projects as they are, his soundtracks won’t give newcomers a full appreciation of his musical vision.
While still a student dabbling in petty crime, pop ambition, and what would become a decades-long relationship with heroin, Cave started his career in The Boys Next Door, the band that would morph into The Birthday Party circa 1980. Although it’s his first major musical project, it’s not the best introduction to the man and his music. That’s not to say that 1979’s Door, Door—the Boys’ lone album—isn’t worth hearing. In fact, it’s a riveting mix of edgy post-punk and haunted balladry. But in the video for the album’s closer, “Shivers,” it’s clear the young Cave had yet to shed a blatant if well-intentioned Bryan Ferry fixation.