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Old 1st Jun 2004, 17:41   #1
John Self
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Default The Greatest Genius Who Ever Lived 1: Nick Cave

Looking through an old thread of Wavid's Top Ten songs, I see Nick Cave appears in more people's lists than one might expect for someone who has yet to trouble the charts or the ringtone download ads. However his position is just and assured.

For the uninitiated, Nick Cave is a darling little Australian tyke, a sort of male Holly Valance, who specialises in brooding pop songs about God, death and the loss of love, with a full population of murdered wives, wandering madmen, missing kittens and whiskey priests. I love all that. Like most singers who are accused by the unwise of being "depressing," like The Smiths or Radiohead, he's actually terrifically witty in his lyrics, with a particular fondness for wordplay and lists:

Quote:
Homos roaming the streets in packs
Queerbashers with tyre-jacks
Lesbian counter-attacks
That stuff is for the big cities
Our town is very pretty
We got a pretty little square
We have a woman for a mayor
Our policy is "firm but fair"...

Well-meaning little therapists
Goose-stepping, twelve-stepping teetotalitarianists
The tipsy, the reeling, and the drop-down pissed
We got no time for that stuff here...
("God is in the House," No More Shall We Part)

I don't have any of his early albums (with the Birthday Party, or the early Bad Seeds ones), and the first of his I bought, and I have no idea why, was Henry's Dream (1992). About half of the songs were great, with stomping music that makes you know he would be just great live (haven't seen him yet), and lyrics that were even more immediate and lyrical than his more recent stuff.

That was enough to make me buy his next album when it came out. Let Love In (1994) remained probably my favourite Nick Cave album up to the release of the fantastic No More Shall We Part, with the opening and closing tracks "Do You Love Me?" Parts I and II telling, respectively, of real love lost ("All things move toward their end/I knew before I met her that I would lose her"), and of love that is not real (the child prostitute and his assignation with "a man in the theatre with girlish eyes"). These bookend an absolute plethora of brilliant songs, from the heartbreaking ballad "Nobody's Baby Now" through the frankly apocalyptically scary "Red Right Hand" to the dry-as-dust despair of "Ain't Gonna Rain Anymore" with its impeccably rhythmic phrasing ("And watch her forever through the cracks in the beams/Nailed across the doorways of the bedrooms of my dreams").

Written down and read cold, Cave's words can seem melodramatic, childish even, but listening to his plaintive baritone intoning them, all doubts - and frequently bowel control - will flee. This was never truer than in the opening track of his 1996 album Murder Ballads. Who says the boy doesn't have a sense of humour? Yes, it's ten songs about messy death, beginning with arguably finest single moment, "Song of Joy." It's a first-person narrative with an unreliability that would put Patrick McGrath to shame, made all the better by the fact that the lyrics are spliced with extracts from Paradise Lost ("Farewell happy fields/Where Joy forever dwells/Hail horrors hail") and that you can't spot the joins. Then on to an obnoxious updating of the standard "Stagger Lee" ("I'll crawl over fifty good pussies just to get to one fat boy's asshole") and of course the fantastic Kylie Minogue collaboration, "Where the Wild Roses Grow," which stands out for structural brilliance, narrative cleverness and sheer balls-aching emotional power. And there's Cave's funniest moment ever in "The Curse of Millhaven," the tale of a girl who murdered everyone in her home town:

Quote:
Now I got shrinks that will not rest with their endless Rorschach tests
I keep telling them that I think they're out to get me
They ask me if I feel remorse, and I answer, "Why of course!
There's so much more I could've done if they'd have let me!"
"O'Malley's Bar" is I think Cave's longest song, about 14 minutes or something, and again a first person narrative about a man who kills everyone, in a bar this time. And again it's poetic ("I'm known to be quite handsome/At a certain angle, in a certain light") and unaccountably hilarious, with my personal epiphany coming on the bus home when I first listened to it, and bursting out laughing at the line "With an ashtray as big as a - [beat] - really fucking big brick/I split his head in half." The album ends with a choral cover of Dylan's "Death is Not the End," which in Cave's hands moves from elegiac reassurance to infernal threat.

I will leave it for someone else to praise The Boatman's Call (199, which everyone said showed a new mature Cave. It's certainly low-key, and amner is right to praise the first line of the first song for sheer lyrical uniqueness ("I don't believe in an interventionist God...") and the religious, lamenting side which has always been present really comes to the fore, but I found too much of it dull to really love it. And there ain't no laughs at all.

His next album No More Shall We Part (2001), then, opens with the remarkable "As I Sat Sadly By Her Side," which is a bizarre keening disquisition on morality and charity and must be the only pop song (if you can call it that) ever to have the lines "God has given you but one heart/You are not a home for the hearts of your brothers") and has a payoff line that it took me ages to work out, and indeed I ended up turning to the highly eloquent reviews of the album on Amazon for the meaning. The album seems to mix the maturity and solemnity of The Boatman's Call with the wicked lyrical talent that Cave didn't display all that well in that album. There's "Fifteen Feet of Pure White Snow" (you can guess what that one's about) and an incredible trio of ballads to end with in "We Came Along This Road," "Gates to the Garden" and "Darker with the Day." I tend to concentrate on the words when talking up Cave, but with these songs it's all in the simple moving melodies and the Bad Seeds' impeccable musicianship. (Honourable mention though must go to the line in the last song "A steeple tore the stomach from a lonely little cloud.") And an account of this masterpiece of an album cannot end without mention of the wonderful chorus that ends "Hallelujah," the tale of a mental patient suspiciously like Cave ("My piano crouched in the corner of the room with all its teeth bared") who goes out while his nurse is away and narrowly avoids doing something terrible - perhaps:

Quote:
The tears are welling in my eyes again
I need twenty big buckets to catch them in
Twenty pretty girls to carry them down
And twenty deep holes to bury them in
His last album, 2003's Nocturama, was recorded under a new system he employed, a splash-and-dash method of writing and recording quickly with none of this arsing about agonising over lyrics formonths on end. I have to say I think it works to his detriment - why change a winning formula? - and although there are some fantastic moments (like the opener, "Wonderful Life," not to be confused with the much-advert-abused Black song of the same name, or the only Cave song possibly longer than "O'Malley's Bar", the endless "Babe I'm on Fire"), I found too much of it forgettable, and never really listen to it now.

So has he peaked? Or is just a normal male pattern receding hairline?
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Old 1st Jun 2004, 18:53   #2
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Red Right Hand by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds also has the distinction of being the first piece of music not by Mark Snow to be featured in the X-Files. Nick Cave and the Dirty Three also provieded the 'hidden track' on the X-Files album Songs in the Key of X - and instead of procaliming from the rooftops that it was there, just remineded us that '0' is also a number .....

Red Right Hand and Songs in the Key of X are still amongst my favourites - and it was one of the first CDs I ever bought

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Old 4th Jun 2004, 9:30   #3
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I don't think he is in decline as such - if he had wanted to make Nocturama as good as No More Shall We Part he probably could have done. I don't think a return to form is out of the question next time round.

Nocturama was certainly a bit quicker paced than it's predecessors - whether the Bad Seeds wanted a bit more to do for once, I'm not sure. Lyrically it wasn't up to Cave's usual exquisite standards, Rock of Gibralter springing to mind as being particularly crap, but certainly on Babe I'm on Fire and There's a Dead Man in My Bed ("'There's a dead man in my bed,' she said/'and I ain't speaking metaphorically'" - occasionally you are reminded that you're listening to a Nick Cave record...) he seems to have returned to his more raucous musical roots.

I read an interview with him on the release of the last album where he said he would have much rather have been a novelist than a musician. Nice for him to have the choice! But has anyone actually read (and finished) And The Ass Saw The Angel?
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Old 4th Jun 2004, 11:15   #4
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Quote:
But has anyone actually read (and finished) And The Ass Saw The Angel?
I know for a fact that idioteque has (and hailed it constantly during many a beery sesh). I'll try and drag him over to give you his view...

Splendid summation of Mr Cave, John, and I probably find myself nodding along to most of it (and a nice reference to whiskey priests there, for the Greene fans, by the way) ... b-b-but can I just shout The Ship Song right out loud?

Quote:
We talk about it all night long
We define our moral ground
But when I crawl into your arms
Everything comes tumbling down
Yes, that's The Ship Song everybody, an I'd-like-that-at-my-funeral-to-bring-the-house-down moment if ever I heard one.

Thank you.
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Old 5th Jun 2004, 20:09   #5
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Now I came to Nick Cave via a free CD in the Indy three or four years ago and knew at once what I'd stumbled upon - a modern inheritor of Leonard Cohen's mordant humour and songwriting talent. I'd begun getting humourously worried as to who I'd listen to once Lenny hung up his songwriting/singing for good and there was Nick, with combinations of words and images that knock me sideways. I dont believe in an interventionist God was a whammy and even a slip of a thing like falling lovely and amazing gives me goosepimples.

I'd agree that Nocturama isn't one of the strongest albums - though only Rock of Gibraltar gets me annoyed - but The Boatman's Call, Murder Ballads and No More Shall We Part are among my top albums.

Question: In Oh My Lord (No More Shall We Part, seventh song), do we get a definite reference musically as well as lyrically to The Rocky Horror Show's Sword of Damocles song? I can hear Rocky Horror every time I play it - especially come the chorus - 'how have I offended thee...?'.
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Old 7th Jun 2004, 13:35   #6
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Default And the ass saw the angel

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Old 7th Jun 2004, 23:51   #7
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Old 15th Aug 2004, 18:07   #8
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I see Cave is making good on his threat to cut the namby-pamby sweating for years over albums - ie making them good - and next month will be following up last year's underwhelming Nocturama with not one but two new albums (but sold together), Abattoir Blues and The Lyre of Orpheus. The Observer today called it his most fully achieved album since The Boatman's Call - what, better than his masterpiece No More Shall We Part? - but you'll have to forgive me if I can't shake off my suspicion of the highly prolific.
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Old 15th Aug 2004, 18:25   #9
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Oh, I'm worried now When you say the Observer called 'it' his most fully achieved album since..., it was referring to both Abattoir Blues and the Lyre of Orpheus?

I am also worried about the speediness of these albums but I am such an Orpheus obsessive (as well as a Nick Cave obsessive) I'll be purchasing both anyway. Just in time for my birthday. :D
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Old 15th Aug 2004, 20:11   #10
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Whoops. They reviewed them as one package (which indeed is the way they are being sold) so I think they referred to both when they said that. True, there are only a total of 17 songs on the two albums, which some bands would put out as one. Personally I have never gone for the more-is-more theory of music. There's a natural attention span inbuilt into us - or it may be just me - which means I'd far rather have a 35-minute album than a 65-minute one, and value for money be blowed. At the risk of repeating myself, I picked up the Red Hot Chili Peppers' last album in Virgin a while back and put it back down when I saw that it had 16 tracks and boasted on its cover sticker: 75 minutes of music! Said it before but: I wouldn't want to do something I like for 75 minutes.
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