They say that writing about music is like ‘dancing about architecture’, and if there’s one artist who sums up this analogy, a man who consistently strives to avoid feeble attempts of interpretations and explanations for his music, it’s Nick Cave. Here goes nothing then. I won’t attempt too much to box-in an artist who thrives in the open air of the literary playground, but more or less showcase a songwriter that has refused to settle down into a comfortable musical easy chair, instead wandering endlessly down the corridors of song, looking for the next door to open. For me, no artist has changed and adapted to his surroundings whilst maintaining his core musical identity quite as well as Nick Cave has, writing some of the best melodies, and in particular, lyrics, of the last 30 or so years. We’ll be taking a look at some of the gems in his back catalogue, narrowing it down to ten songs (no easy feat) that best represent the man’s lyrical and song-crafting expertise.
10. – Red Right Hand – Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds -(Let Love In)
Kicking off the list is one of Nick Cave’s most well known songs, “Red Right Hand”, recently given a second wind of popularity for it’s use on BBC’s Peaky Blinders. ‘Past the square/Past the bridge/Past the mills/Past the stacks’ lurks a tall handsome man in a dusty black coat, indicating peril is just around the corner, with organ stabs adding to the chilling undertones. Nick had also created a whole fictional town that existed outside the boundaries of the song, with characters and landmarks that didn’t feature in the song itself existing in his lyric notebooks. It just goes to show the detail and care that Cave puts into his alluring and stimulating fictional worlds.
9. No Pussy Blues – Grinderman (Grinderman)
Formed in 2006, Grinderman saw Nick and three other members of the Bad Seeds break off from the Bad Seeds and tackle songwriting with a more stripped back, raw garage-rock approach, with Cave donning the guitar for the first time in his career. “No Pussy Blues” sees Nick at his satirical best, with it’s mockery of man’s “Mr. Nice Guy” act that’s only in motion for one reason and one reason only. ‘I sent her every type of flower/I played her a guitar by the hour/I petted her revolting little Chihuahua/But still she just didn’t want to’ sings the incessant sex pest sycophant, the human embodiment of the archetypal man depicted in the SCUM Manifesto by Valarie Solanas. Now there’s a face-off i’d like to see.
8. Slowly Goes The Night – Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (Tender Prey)
We find Nick in his definition of a musical comfort zone here; bleeding dry his wronged heart into song. The master of rumination, Nick finds himself tossing and sweating over some long-gone lover, with melancholy piano from Roland Wolf and atmospheric guitar work from Blixa Bargeld adding to the almost desperate despair. The spoken word piece by Cave at the beginning of the song is a definite highlight.
7. (Are You) The One That I’ve Been Waiting For? – Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (The Boatman’s Call)
The Boatman’s Call is an album that follows the full trajectory of a relationship (or a few, in his case) right from their wonderful inceptions to their ragged end. This song depicts the former, with beautiful imagery and lyrics that yearn for the start of a romance with a new figure in his life, perfectly encapsulating the dizzying feelings of infatuation such a person brings to them: ‘So i’ve sat and i’ve watched an ice-age thaw/Are you the one that i’ve been waiting for?’. Full of striking couplets such as this, and a painstakingly-good chord structure, it could quite possibly be the quintessential Nick Cave love song.
6. Stagger Lee – Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (Murder Ballads)
1996’s “Murder Ballads” saw Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds score their first mainstream chart hit, a duet with Kylie Minogue. The album is full of tales of violence and death, and Nick reached a new level of balefulness on “Stagger Lee”, playing the part of Stagger Lee himself, bad mouthing his way out and into trouble, painting visuals in your head with the blood of his victims. The story of Stagger Lee is an old tale, but Nick makes this an original and exciting take on it. Brimming with controversial one-liners, the song’s become fabled in it’s own right, and has become a staple at a Bad Seeds gig.
5. Higgs Boson Blues – Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (Push The Sky Away)
A song from the Bad Seed’s most recent (and remarkable) album, 2013’s “Push The Sky Away”, “Higgs Boson Blues” paints an apocalyptic picture of a car ride down to Geneva, as ‘flame trees line the streets’ and Nick contemplates the meaning of existence behind the wheel, not caring for what the future has in store. In Nick Cave’s recent biopic “20,000 Days On Earth”, Nick is quoted as saying that songwriting is ‘all about counterpoint’, and what better example of this than making Hannah Montannah do the African Savannah as Miley Cyrus floats in a swimming pool in Toluca Lake. Trademark Nick Cave: contemporary, reflective and mood-inducing.
4. The Mercy Seat – Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (Tender Prey)
In his years living in Berlin during the mid-late 80’s, Nick found this period in time to be an immensely creative and productive time in his life. One key song from that time period, and now considered a Cave classic that’s been played at every show since it’s birth (as of 2014), is “The Mercy Seat”. Nick was heavily into the Old Testament at the time (he was also writing his first novel And the Ass Saw The Angel during 87 -89), so allusions to the bible heavily seeped their way into his work during this period. The song follows a prison inmates final moments on the electric chair, with the antagonist proclaiming to God and witnesses that he’s not afraid to die, until the final verse, where he confesses that he’s been lying all along.
3. Jubilee Street – Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (Push The Sky Away)
With Blixa Bargeld leaving the Bad Seeds in 2003, and Mick Harvey following suit in 2009, there was a huge dynamic shift within the band when it came to recording and playing live. Warren Ellis, who’d been in the band officially since 1995, really came into his own after proceedings, allowing the band to mature in the best way possible and avoiding any form of stagnation. “Jubilee Street” features enthralling strings by Warren, as they propel the song towards it’s crescendo with Warrens’ incredible work on the violin. ‘I’m transforming/I’m vibrating/I’m glowing/I’m flying/Look at me now’ sings Cave, oozing with aplomb; never has the man been more assured of himself than here.
2. Papa Won’t Leave You, Henry – Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (Henry’s Dream)
It doesn’t get much better than this when it comes to album openers. Conjuring up scenes 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 at the time 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. A tour-de-force of wordplay and compositional prowess, the song is regarded by many fans as perhaps Nick’s best lyrically, it’s lyrical vibrancy almost unmatched within The Bad Seeds canon.
1. More News From Nowhere – Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!)
The closing track on 2008’s “Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!”, “More News From Nowhere” is a 7-minute magnum-opus that starts off with one of Nick’s best opening lines: ‘I walk in to the corner of my room/See my friends in high places/Don’t know which is which or whom is whom/They’ve stolen each other’s faces’. Full to the brim with brilliant wordplay, literary references, and references to his own musical career along the way, it’s a roller coaster of a song that demands to be ridden again and again, with it’s relentless yet measured rhythm. Each verse unfolds like a miniature play where Cave stars in all three of the main roles: the actor, writer and director of this cabaret of past, present and the absurd. All the proof you need that no one has aged as well as Nick Cave in the game of song; a man never certain where his feet will land next, but the music all the more certain for it.
‘Well I gotta say, yeah I gotta say, goodbye.’