After my top ten most influential texts, I thought I might do a top ten most influential songs. This was too difficult a task, and composed too much Nick Cave.
So, in its place, I have complied an equally difficult list to cull down. The best songs of the grand Australian god of darkness, love and humour, Nick Cave. Obviously there are glaring, glaring omissions. But take it for what it is. Make of it what you will.
In no particular order.
Listen along with Spotify:
Order is dependent on mood. I haven’t spent a great deal of time on this writing wise, so apologies for grammatical and syntax errors.
Comments are encouraged.
And for interest, my favourite records are ‘For No More Shall We Part’, ‘Let Love In’ and ‘Push The Sky Away.
1. Mercy seat
If there were to be an archetypal Cave song, this would be it. This most famous song is a slow building and monstrous opus that inhabits a world of damnation and no other promise than that of execution. With no real chorus structure, Cave plays with a slow building until a doom that we cannot escape, yet our language is the only thing that can bring redemption. Like most of Cave’s oeuvre, every line is bursting with dichotomous meaning.
A ragged cup, a twisted mop /
The face of Jesus in my soup
The face of Jesus in a soup: is this the judgement and impending hell, or the face of redemption? The character that Cave embodies (as he so often, and masterfully does) is a prisoner whose body has betrayed him: his fingers inscribed with tattooed letters spell out his ultimate fate – like Faustus’s flesh that formed itself into letters to warn against his impending pact with Devil, his hand should have rebelled against evil. The equation of the Cross with the ‘mercy seat’ (the electric chair’) is genuinely disturbing, and becomes the crucible for a contrast of Old and New Testament thinking on divine retribution, freewill, and mercy itself. The prisoner fights with his ideas, and ultimately language to find a way to turn his pointless death into a sacrifice, until at the very last he loses his grip on his words, which twist themselves away from his lies, assert the truth, and confirm his sentence in the final line – language has gained its own momentum to force a confession and justify execution. This verbal slippage infiltrates the seven concluding verses like a gathering nightmare: it is a tour de force of song writing.
2. Do you love me
This song, and the album itself are a signpost in The Bad Seeds career. Not only did it point toward their slightly more demure future, but also drew heavily on and harked back to their chaotic, violent and blustering roots. This is a song of a band at the height of their powers as the opening gothic rouser with one of Cave’s best piano arrangements talks to the listen of a lost love that would emotionally kill him.
I found her on a night of fire and noise /
Wild bells rang in a wild sky / I knew from that moment on /
I’ll love her till the day that I died.
The Bad Seeds chorus of backing vocals of doom add to the lament of the protagonist. It shows Cave at his very best, musically and lyrically. Although it has a more polished sound than the rawness of the songs found on ‘Henry’s Son’, it still manages to build up a huge amount of energy with a fantastic bass line, catchy piano melody and densely layered structure. The more polished sound gives it a slightly more poppy edge but there is a very sinister undertone to the quite cryptic lyrics, with vivid and grim imagery implying that the narrator could be a rapist:
Ah, here she comes, blocking the sun /
Blood running down the inside of her legs /
The moon in the sky is battered and mangled /
And the bells from the chapel go jingle-jangle
It examines the descending madness of the main character, either from external circumstances or due to the loss and leaving of his love. It is as far away from a love song one could get with love in the title. The large sound and rough production with the driving piano drive it along, and Cave’s distinctive vocals are as dark and forceful as ever as he shows the throttling and demonic nature of love far removed from heaven. Nietzsche’s lack of God and his corresponding madness from syphilis, along with the lack of trust in the world could be seen as a philosophical commonality.
3. From Her to Eternity
On the first post Birthday Party album, this track is a masterpiece and live it is even more compelling. It is a driving, relentless horror of a song that like The Mercy Seat just keeps building and building with demonic drum beat and Blixa’s guitar making seemingly random, unholy sounds. Warren Ellis has described the song as inducing a trance like state that ends a cathartic release with Cave’s chaotic screaming. The piano keeps a monotonic percussive rhythm, darkening an already impossibly dark piece corresponding with half drawled, half screamed lyrics:
but I can hear the most melancholy sound /
I ever heard. . .
From her, to, Eternity
The piece moves along as if the whole thing could fall apart any second, but combined with an inevitability that we are going somewhere together, but not sure that it is a very nice place. It touches on Cave’s most enduring themes in one concise moment, that of sex and murder. The character that Cave inhabits wants to save a miserable girl unknown of his existence from her misery, but it is also a misery that he finds sadistic joys in. The song ends with what sounds like the strangulation and death rattle of the poor victim, as Cave yelps. This is one of the darkest, and most sadistic song and considering the author, really says something. It is a deep exploration of murder, death and the sex drive which reflects Cave’s early deep south literary influences and the Bad Seeds more experimental sound in their early years.
4. Straight to you
Maybe to prove that I’m not all about the murderous fire and brimstone, one of his greatest love songs (and this is saying something!), lyrically as well as musically one of his finest. In the impending apocalyptic end
Towers of ivory crumble /
swallows sharpen their beaks
the world collapses,
heaven has denied us its kingdom /
the seas are all drunk and howling at the moon
and the only way to save yourself was to:
‘run straight to you /
for I am captured one more time.
The slightly upbeat rhythm and with Mick Harvey’s Bob Dylan inspired riff which also harks to another peer of Cave’s, Cohen. Like his peer he uses religious imagry to bring the bleakness of the worldly situation to the fore, which reaches beyond his immediate love interest as he works between the immediate indiscernibleness of individual love and the horrors of the world. But beneath the lyrically complexity is a very simple ballad with a gorgeous organ line that dominates the track and the underrated back up abilities of the Bad Seeds. A beautiful classic.
5. We real cool
Off what is probably my second favourite Cave album, the ominous base line opens up the song as he works between the two narrative positions of first person and a more omnipotent narrator. Cave examines notions of something so dear to us historians that of memory and the past which he relates to the younger generation. He also moves in to his theologically influenced metaphysics – how does father and child relations function. The mystery of the Trinity of God the Father and God as the Son is invoked here. Cave’s loss of his father is left behind as he muses on his own relationship with his young children. This is not only from the point of view of a father, but that of an omnipotent being reflecting from above. This view is retained as he muses on after the interlude of the gorgeous string section – what is one of my favourite parts of this album – on the virtual universe of the internet, and the power and infinity of Wikipedia. This invokes Borges’ library of Babel, which although has the ability to contain all knowledge could be entirely illusorily.
The past is the past and it’s here to stay /
Wikipedia’s heaven /
When you don’t want to remember, you know.
He goes on to end it with a line that suggests a mixture of hope, but also loss and the fragility of the future:
‘On the far side of the morning.
It is a song that urges more and more re-listening, and always invokes a sense of my place when I listen to it, and an uneasy sense of our lost connections in postmodernity. It is not necessarily a conservative song, but one that muses and worries about the form of connections that are forced upon us and developed in a world that shifts underneath us without notice.
6. Lay me low
This favorite of mine has a strong personal connection as was the catalyst to a wonderful seven hours with two of my best friends at a music festival, I say somewhat cryptically. But this song in which Cave’s tongue is firmly placed in his cheek as one of his myriad characters, that his inhabits so well, muses on the reactions of the world to his death. And although Cave has a reputation for morbidity he also has a very sharp and dry sense of humour and wonderful language play that shines in this barnstormer. He lists figures from his childhood, including his teachers who say he was
one of God’s sorrier creatures,
and the police chief, who says he was
a malanderer, a badlander and a thief.
The funeral itself is a grand affair, wherein
the sea will rage and the sky will storm
all man and beast will mourn.”
He offers the same to anyone who cares to listen:
If you wanna be my friend /
And you wanna repent /
And you want it all to end /
And you wanna know when /
Well, do it now, don’t care how /
Take your final bow /
Make a stand, take my hand /
And blow it all to hell.
Salvation, then, is offered to anyone who cares enough to destroy the oppressions of uncreative and dull thinking. “Take up the cross” indeed. This might not be Nick’s best work critically, but one that needed to be put in this list if for anything his dark humour. Although he has not lived in Australia for many years, he retains the dry sardonic nature of this dry and sardonic country, with some lovely rhyming and the perfect tenor back up vocals of the bad seeds crying out to lay Nick low into the ground. It as if he is almost channelling some of the iconic ‘bush’ poets, Banjo Patterson and co. Plenty of fun.
7. It’s a wonderful life
The oft forgotten opener off Nocturama features Nick at his piano, Warren not only with gorgeous violin lines but the build up into the near raucous chaos that only the Bad Seeds can do well. It tells of an aging Nick Cave in which he has resigned himself to the world slightly,
throw off your gloves /
and just give in
but the weight that that can lift of ones shoulders. Of course it is slightly tongue in cheek. Cave knows perfectly well that the world is not wonderful, and resigning yourself to ignorance is not the way out. But this becomes a sage advice to a lover, maybe things aren’t wonderful, but maybe they should just be. The live version with Warren driving the Bad Seeds into near chaos brings out the dichotomous nature of this tune. Although the title would suggest a straight forward narrative of gospel like adoration for our existence it is tempered by a deep worry and alienation that this may be further from the truth than one can imagine.
8. Where do we go but nowhere
One theme that is not always explored when thinking about Cave’s work is that of destination. His songs often seem like they are going somewhere, that somewhere may not be a place we want to be but inevitability takes us. Boatman’s call lacks much of the destinatory push, which adds to the darkness. This, my favourite track of this album brings this theme to a fore. It is the first one on the album that features Ellis violin in one of his most haunting lines. The lyrics are equally as damning:
Full of glass and bleach /
And my old razor blades /
where do we go but nowhere /
wake up my love
tells a tale . . .
Gloomily and mournfully we go rounds again /
And one more doomed time and without much hope /
Going round and around to nowhere.
This resolutely haunting song which will never find an end remains one of his saddest and heart wrenching tracks. It has been speculated that this is about the end of his relationship with Viviane Carneiro. It is a grotesque meditation on modernity, with all its unfamiliar creations. He describes a kitten “with the paw of a bear,” and a crazed girl “gnawing her knuckles in the chemical light.” The despairing verses are punctuated by a mantra-like chorus that simply pleads, “wake up, my love, my lover wake up.” The chorus is an appeal to Christ crucified and resurrected in humanity as the creative spirit. The “fresh, clean, antiseptic air” is the modern world from which Cave desires deliverance, but which is just not possible.
9. There she goes my beautiful world
On the gospel-inflected “There She Goes, My Beautiful World,” from 2004’s Abbatoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus, Cave takes on the character of a writer experiencing writer’s block
Me, I’m lying here, with nothing in my ears.
Pleading, he sends up the final verse:
I will be your slave /
I will peel you grapes /
Up on your pedestal /
With your ivory and apes /
With your book of ideas /
With your alchemy /
O Come on /
Send that stuff on down to me.
Earlier in the song, he demythologizes various literary figures, characterizing Karl Marx, who “Squeezed his carbuncles while writing Das Kapital,” and Dylan Thomas, who “Died drunk in St. Vincent’s Hospital” with much less reverence than usually attends them. He recasts them as human figures, afflicted by disease and drunkenness — common, human afflictions. The intended effect universalizes the creativity Cave sees as emanating from a divine presence. All of them, he reminds us, were merely suffering mortals, and the wellspring of creative potential those fortunate icons accessed can and should be accessed in every person. This is a hard lesson to swallow, but I am reminded of what Cave himself has often said. His prodigious output comes from hard work more than anything. He turns up at his office every day except Sunday and works, no matter what. A lesson for us all.
10. And no more shall we part
On this more intimately sounding album (apparently Nick recorded the vocals sitting at his piano, hence the different sound to his voice) is a beautiful ghost of a tune which blossoms elegantly from sobbing psalm to cosmic meditation on destiny and liberty.
If I never was free /
I’m not free now
This title track is a loose narrative about the healing power of love, alternating between trapped terror and weary resignation as
The contracts are drawn up /
The ring is locked upon the finger
This is Cave at his very delicate best musing between two of the most complex philosophical topics of freedom and love, and how they can be aligned. It would be worth seeing someone like Alain Badiou or Slavoj Zizek attack this topic, without a doubt could not even come close to expressing it like it is done so succinctly, and eye-wateringly beautiful as it is in this track. He is razor sharp moving between the complex of faith that really could be as simple as a goodnight kiss. This track and album are a career highlight, and for me the high point of Cave’s unearthly powers.
Here are my Bonus non Bad Seeds favorite tracks, along with the best song live.
Junkyard – Birthday Party
Boys next door – Shivers
Grinderman – Palaces of Montezuma
Nick Cave with Dirty Three – Time Jesum Transeuntum Et Non Riverentum
BEST LIVE TRACK: Jubilee Street.