There’s not many artists in music (if any, for that matter) quite as distinct and singular as Nick Cave when it comes to narrative songwriting. No other musician has painted such visceral yet beautiful imagery in my head, conjured up by his seemingly never-ending stream of fascinating and observant lyrics, referencing literature along the way whilst simultaneously winking at pop culture, the man is the best at stringing a sentence or two together. These lyrics have filtered through from their beginnings in his infamous notebooks to The Bad Seeds’ 14 studio albums thus far.
Whenever I want to sit myself down, stop whatever i’m doing and just listen to incredible storytelling in the form of song, there’s one album in particular that I always come back to time and time again, and that’s 1992’s Henry’s Dream.
Over time this album has sort of been dismayed a little by the critics, and kinda left in the dust by music fans. Before I get into why I think it’s actually the hidden gem amongst their back catalogue and quite possibly their best album yet, it’s easy to see why it’s had a turbulent history. As brilliant as this album is, it’s one that was stooped in misery during the recordings for Nick and the Bad Seeds, born from tribulation at the hands of producer David Briggs. Before even entering a studio to start the album, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ manager at the time suggested they find a more renowned and knowledgeable producer to produce their next album, to build upon the success they found with their last album The Good Son (in particular the success they had with the singles ‘The Ship Song’ and ‘The Weeping Song’ from the album). This album had been produced by only The Bad Seeds themselves, and with a little guidance and a push in the right direction, it was felt that the right producer would be able to capitalise on Nick’s ever-growing songwriting abilities and propel them sky high. So in stepped David Briggs.
Chosen by Nick Cave himself because of his admiration for Brigg’s work on some of Neil Young’s records in the 70’s, it soon came apparent however, some time after entering the studio with Briggs, that the band felt they’d picked the wrong guy. Briggs apparently preferred to use a ‘live-in-the-studio’ method that he’d used with Neil Young, however the band, Nick and Mick Harvey in particular, felt that this method wasn’t doing the songs justice, and so tensions between the band and producer began to surface, with members growing increasingly tired with the recordings. Ultimately, Nick grew so disillusioned with how the songs were being treated that he just wanted to get through the rest of the album and get it over with.
Now while I can sympathise with Nick and Co. and their frustrations, I believe that Briggs’ live-in-the-studio method of recording the band worked amazingly well with Cave’s tales of death, love, malevolence and lust, creating songs that feel like 5-minute stage plays taking place in the 12th century. I can understand why Nick was so particular about how he wanted his songs to be recorded and treated, as these are without a doubt absolute masterclasses in lyrical songwriting, and he must’ve felt the same way about them too, almost like a proud dad watching from the sidelines as their child plays for the local sports team, all too aware of, and aggravated by, the managers’ incessant and provoking bark of commands towards their child.
It really is these lyrics of his that make this album the narrative powerhouse it is. Take the first song on the album for example, ‘Papa Won’t Leave You, Henry’, which is quite possibly the greatest album opener ever, setting up the apocalyptic scene of a violent barren landscape in the Gothic Deep South, with it’s “lynch-mobs, death squads, babies being born without brains” and it’s “mad heat and relentless rains”, it literally feels like a grotesque, disturbing novel is unfolding right in front of you, with each subsequent verse growing more and more unhinged and ferocious. Nick had been inspired by buskers he’d seen playing ‘violent acoustic’ songs on two-stringed guitars on the streets of São Paulo in Brazil, where he had lived momentarily. This idea of violent, acoustic songs with a strong narrative is the concept that would carry on throughout the album, and you can really hear this idea in it’s purest form here. Many Nick Cave fans regard this song as perhaps his greatest lyrically and it’s not hard to see why, with the imagery that the lyrics conjure up burned into your skull long after the song has ended.
Another lyrical goldmine comes in the form of ‘John Finn’s Wife’, which tells the tale of a married woman with a “crimson carnation in her teeth, carving her way through the dance floor” of some old dance-hall on the edge of town. The protagonist seduces the wife, before John Finn arrives and challenges him to some sort of standoff, leaving the band on the bandstand fearing for their lives and a bloody mess in tow, ending with a bolo knife in John Finn’s neck.
“And I slip my hand between the thighs of John Finn’s wife
And they seemed to yawn awake, her thighs
It was a warm and very ferocious night
The moon full of blood and light
And my eyes grew small and my eyes grew tight
As I plotted in the ear of John Finns’ wife”.
Again, not only are the lyrics sublime in their cut-throat delivery, but the instrumentation from The Bad Seeds here is second to none, with lush strings and a beautiful final verse, almost gospel-like with Cave’s spoken words sailing towards the end of this exquisite short story.
One thing that strikes me the most with this album is just how well Nick Cave juxtaposes such horrific scenes of dramatic and sudden violence with gorgeous melodies and his obsession with beauty. On ‘Straight To You’, the lead single from the album, the vocal take is so menacing in the final verse that he almost sounds like he’s growling, yet Nick is painting an almost fairy-tale like scenario between him and a lover, with crumbling towers of ivory and his repeated cries of “this is the time of our great undoing, this is the time that I’ll come running, straight to you.” It’s a wonderfully simple love song, but with Cave’s unique approach to delivering it to the audience in a way that sets it apart from other love songs.
‘I Had A Dream, Joe’ and ‘Jack the Ripper’ show the Bad Seeds in the swing of things, Cave taking full authority with his demanding and uncompromising vocals, backed up by his entourage of sleek and sharp musicians.
There’s also the autobiographical song ‘When I First Came to Town’, which I can only guess is a middle finger to his critics who shunned him from the start when he first touched down in London with The Birthday Party in 1980, but remarks “how quickly they change their tune”, and solidified Nick’s confidence in his own songwriting capabilities at the time. And he had every reason to be confident.
Every Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds album is a tour de force of lyrical wit, wonderful storytelling and haunting melodies, yet no album for me has fused all these components together quite as magnificently as Henry’s Dream did. It was the start of a new Nick Cave, the one focused on telling a captivating story, full to the brim with harsh and beautiful imagery, foul yet poetic wordplay. I hope this doesn’t end up being his magnum opus, as Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds are still going strong after 33 years, however this one’s gonna be a tough one to better that’s for sure. But for now, delve into the twisted and enticing world of Henry’s Dream.
“If you stick your arm into that hole it comes out sheared off to the bone.”