Nick Bollinger discusses a 30-year retrospective of Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds.
One thing you can say about Nick Cave, he knows how to handle a crowd. When he played here in January with his venerable band The Bad Seeds, audience expectations were palpable and he fulfilled them, performing many of his best-loved songs, engaging in his traditional ritual contact with a few of the more demonstrative fans. After pretending not to hear initial requests, he even played ‘Stagger Lee’, the over-the-top gangster parody from his Murder Ballads album.
And yet I also sensed a tension within the set, the tension any performer faces when they have a catalogue as deep as Cave’s. It’s the tension between what the audience wants to hear and what the performer wants to play. And though the set was generously filled with favourites, there were also the newer songs, particularly from Cave’s last couple of albums, which conjured quite a different atmosphere.
Broadly representing the two poles of Cave’s catalogue, ‘We No Who U R’ – which kicked off Push The Sky Away, Cave’s album before last - appears side by side with ‘Stagger Lee’ as the last two tracks on Lovely Creatures, a new compilation that purports to offer the best of Cave and the Bad Seeds work from the three decades 1984 to 2014.
The collection comes in a variety of formats. I’ve been listening to the 3-disc vinyl version, though it’s the deluxe CD edition that is aimed at the deep fan, with a whole lot of extra tracks, a DVD and hardcover book. But as a kind of beginner’s guide, the 21-song version that appears on both the triple-vinyl and double-CD works adequately, encompassing moody modern pieces like that one, and tracks that are more than thirty years old and still dangerous, like ‘From Her To Eternity’ and ‘Red Right Hand’.
In these songs Cave was staking out a territory of his own; a mythic place that at times resembled the American South, at other times the outback of his native Australia, a place inhabited by ghosts, any of whom might have had a claim on his soul. Elvis and Jim Morrison both hovered somewhere in the ether.
It was a kind of melodrama, contrived yet larger than life and viscerally exciting, and it propelled Cave through a good number of albums and produced some classic songs. Johnny Cash recognised one of these, ‘The Mercy Seat’, as ideal for his own sense of melodrama.
Somewhere along the line, though, Cave began to treat the songwriting thing a bit more earnestly, and some of the daredevil humour fell away.
It was in 1998, not long after the sombre Boatman’s Call album, that Cave’s first ‘best of’ was released. And of the 21 tracks on the new compilation almost half can be found on that earlier album. A few older songs have been swapped out for others of the same vintage – for instance ‘Are You The One That I’ve Been Waiting For?’, a particularly ponderous cut from The Boatman’s Call, has been replaced with ‘People Ain’t No Good’ from the same disc. But most of the additions simply didn’t exist yet when the first ‘best of’ was released. And some of these are certainly worthy of any Cave compendium.
In ‘Higgs Boson Blues’ (from Push The Sky Away) he’s still wrestling with the devil in some southern delta of the mind, but it shows the more self-conscious craftsmanship that has dominated his later writing. That’s as recent as Lovely Creatures gets. There’s nothing from last year’s Skeleton Tree, which is perhaps still too fresh and raw to have identified what will be its most enduring songs.
Cave and the Bad Seeds will be touring the world for much of the remaining year, and if their January shows in New Zealand were anything to go by, then this album represents a good deal of the set people will hear. But in sealing off the past in a package like this, Cave may also be clearing himself some space to make whatever the music is he wants to make next.
Songs featured: Stagger Lee, Into My Arms, We No Who U R, Higgs Boson Blues, Tupelo, From Her To Eternity.
Lovely Creatures is available on Mute Records.