“To all those at MTV,
I would like to start by thanking you all for the support you have given me over recent years and I am both grateful and flattered by the nominations that I have received for Best Male Artist […].
Having said that, I feel that it’s necessary for me to request that my nomination for best male artist be withdrawn and furthermore any awards or nominations for such awards that may arise in later years be presented to those who feel more comfortable with the competitive nature of these award ceremonies. I myself, do not. I have always been of the opinion that my music is unique and individual and exists beyond the realms inhabited by those who would reduce things to mere measuring. I am in competition with no-one.
My relationship with my muse is a delicate one at the best of times and I feel that it is my duty to protect her from influences that may offend her fragile nature[…]
My muse is not a horse and I am in no horse race and if indeed she was, still I would not harness her to this tumbrel — this bloody cart of severed heads and glittering prizes. My muse may spook! May bolt! May abandon me completely!
So once again, to the people at MTV, I appreciate the zeal and energy that was put behind my last record, I truly do and say thank you and again I say thank you but no…no thank you.
21st October 1996“
With his famous letter to MTV, Nick Cave not only refuses the nomination as best male artist, but also makes a statement: his music obeys only to his “muse” and is not subject to any influence by media competitions or record labels. The proof is in a career of precious masterpieces never bowing to the music industry (“this bloody cart of severed heads and glittering prizes”).
A pale male from the slums of Australia, black hair and white gloomy face like a spooky Elvis Presley, he starts his turbulent and prolific career with Australian post-punk band The Birthday Party: their album PRAYERS ON FIRE (4AD, 1981) makes music history with its uncompromising and violent blending of Captain Beefheart, The Pop Group, Tom Waits, The Stooges, Virgin Prunes, and Public Image Ltd, a twisting electro-blues that sounds innovative even today.
But in London, Cave’s name appears on his album covers for the first time when the singer founds the Bad Seeds, including former Birthday Party member Mick Harvey, Einstürzende Neubauten member Blixa Bargeld, Hugo Race, and former Magazine member Barry Adamson.
In London, with the album FROM HER TO ETERNITY he paves the way for his legendary music made of freaks, killers, saints, damnation, hope and redemption. Among his tutelary deities we find William Blake, John Milton, William Faulkner, Edgar Allan Poe and Flannery O’ Connor in literature, and Leonard Cohen, Robert Johnson, Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan in music. He absorbs all of them and uses their art in order to create original, deeply human music sustained by astonishing lyrics (among the few ones in music history that are really worth reading).
FROM HER TO ETERNITY (Mute, 1984) is characterised by a hammering sound, the demonic crooning of the preacher Cave and the paranoia of his lyrics. This moral preacher dilutes his sermons during all the album, from the opening track, Avalanche, a nightmarish cover of his beloved Cohen, to the devastating, disfigured blues of Cabin Fever (the werewolf Cave looking like a Captain Beefheart or David Thomas from Hell), to the imminent apocalypse of Saint Huck, about Huckleberry Finn, with thumping drums, rattling guitars, impending piano and skeletons of pirates whistling in the dark. The damned on board of the ghost ship of Well Of Misery introduce with their singing Cave’s love (and obsession) for the South of the United States, the Mississippi that will flank his career from now on: Cave’s harmonica drives Harvey’s drums and vibes, that like whips violently hit the singing slaves in the plantations. The title-track is another jewel, one of the masterpieces of ‘80s music: From Her To Eternity depicts Cave’s obsession with a woman, the pulsating piano follows the madman in his downward spiral, while his infernal crooning becomes more theatrical, and the noises and distortions of German industrial rock shake the serpent-song from the beginning to the end. The album is a dissonant masterpiece that will set a standard for the rest of the 80s.
THE FIRSTBORN IS DEAD (Homestead, 1985), recorded in Berlin, is another milestone in Rock Music. Johnson’s blues is emphasized and overtaken at the same time, while the gothic American South of Faulkner and O’ Connor becomes the main character. Cave’s relationship with Protestantism and sense of guilt is here too (his father died in a car accident during the short time the young Nick was detained in prison for burglary). Tupelo is the first masterpiece: inspired by the figure of Elvis Presley, it’s a cursed story of rise and fall, of damnation and redemption, of myths eaten and regurgitated by masses and media, with references to the figure of Christ himself. Guitars and basses lead a limping and disquieting rhythm, accelerating and slowing down among sudden explosions of drums. Trains and prisons characterize all the album, as wondrously shown in Tran Long Suffering, one of the best songs in Rock Music: this accelerating tornado, in between blues and gospel, is pulled like a rocket by the overwhelming drums, the devastating guitars and, above all, the furious and incomparable voice of Cave, that recreates even the puffs of a locomotive among the chants of the deportees. The Luciferian Blind Lemon Jefferson is suspended in a vacuum at the shadow of Judgement Day, living again the last moments of the blind bluesman. Cave uses his characters like mirrors, projecting his psyche and sharing it with the listener, as Black Crow King shows even better: here the singer stands like a messiah-like figure, while the scourge of drums and guitars goes on and a gloomy organ appears on stage. The music moves from the plantations to the prison ballad of Knockin’ On Joe, telling the story of a convict hardened by the horrors of life, a lament supported by martial drums, a piano from some Berlin lounge, harmonica and theatrical singing. Wanted Man borrows From her To Eternity’s hammering, but the fugitive’s singing is even more mischievous.
After the release of his “roots” in KICKING AGAINST THE PRICKS (Homestead, 1986), Cave produces 2 EPs of original songs in Berlin, which he merges in the spectacular YOUR FUNERAL… MY TRIAL (Homestead, 1986). The album, a huge ensemble of metaphors, opens with the intertwined voices of the soothing Sad Waters, living again the thrills of his best albums and delivers jewels like Stranger Than Kindness and Jack’s Shadow. These songs only can easily place the album among his best ones, but the real masterpiece is The Carny: an orchestra made of ragged dolls out from a future Tim Burton’s movie leads the rhythm, while the singer, like a manly version of Nico, tells an evocative story of dwarves, crows and death; the song was chosen by Wim Wenders for his movie WINGS OF DESIRE (Der Himmel über Berlin, 1987) and even today stands out.
While fighting his addiction to heroine, Cave produces one of his biggest albums, the masterpiece that put an end to the “Berlin Era” for many artists, just 1 year before the fall of the Wall: TENDER PREY (Mute, 1988). Great tracks follows one another at breakneck pace: the moving ballad Mercy, the desolation of Up Jumped The Devil, the violence on women in the swinging, furious Sugar Sugar Sugar, and the “surf” garage rock of Deanna. At the top, the opening track, one of the greatest songs in music history, and one of the most touching ones ever written, The Mercy Seat: the song is laden with allusions to the Old Testament and the Ark of the Covenant, and the “seat” Cave is raving about is the Throne of God and at the same time the electric chair. The last moments of the doomed man before the execution in the “civilized” United States of America, his disillusion and fear, are told in a way that is still unsurpassed today. The lyrics are strong, horrifying, and the guitars and singing build a continuous electric crescendo hammered by the implacable piano, a sonic framework worthy of the greatest punk-rock tracks. Johnny Cash himself will cover this song, underlining its importance in modern culture.
And when you think that Cave has reached his maturity, he surpasses himself and delivers one of the masterpieces of Ninetieth Century’s music: the monumental, symphonic album THE GOOD SON (Elektra, 1990), a work of art that can easily equal Classical music. Recorded in Sao Paulo, Brazil, it’s the album of redemption, of freedom from heroine, an album of love, sorrow and hope that accomplishes the biggest miracle in rock history, going beyond its spectacular lyrics and universally delivering meaning and emotions only through the musical notes. The Mississippi is on stage again, but now the river, or we should say, the water, is the absolute main character: water of rebirth, tears of sorrow, stream of purification, it permeates every song of the album. The tour de force features Nick Cave on vocals, hammond and harmonica, Mick Harvey on bass, acoustic guitar, vibraphone, percussion and vocals, Blixa Bargeld on guitars and backing vocals, Kid Congo Powers on guitar, Thomas Wydler on drums and percussion, and an impressive string section, with violins, violas and cellos arranged by Harvey. Foi Na Cruz (“it happened on the cross”), the opening track, is a touching, delicate prayer driven by a solemn piano and a gospel of redemption and salvation. The Good Son, the title-track, is one of the greatest songs ever, a delusion of 6 minutes, including the best Cave’s vocals, rattling guitars and pounding drums, sometimes appeased by the raising section of strings. Sorrow’s Child is another gloomy prayer by the river, displaying one of Cave’s most famous and fortunate melodies ever, including the most touching piano coda of all times. The Weeping Song sees two different characters, father and son, talking to each other and asking themselves why everybody is crying around them. Is it sorrow? Is it joy? The answer can be found in the continuous strum of the strings, in the clapping hands, in the martial percussions. The Ship Song, Lament and Lucy are the only real soothing moments of the album, while tracks like The Hammer Song and The Witness Song are always leaning forward the anxiety and the thirst of redemption and shaken by the devastating drums, the guitars, the piano and Cave’s unstoppable voice. The singer will never reach again such perfection, and the album can really be considered the zenith of his career.
HENRY’S DREAM (Elektra, 1992), recorded in California, can’t compete with its predecessor, but it’s still pregnant with inspiration and ideas, and from the point of view of strings, guitars and vocals is one of the finest productions of the 90s, a state of the art work that will consolidate Cave’s reputation as “artist of the decade”. Papa Won’t Leave You, Henry, is an overwhelming gospel pervaded by anguish and tension, with Cave shouting his lyrics like a mad priest, and with the crescendo of strings, piano and guitars, every instrument setting the pace. I had A Dream, Joe, starts softly but then explodes into an even more furious song, Cave is completely unleashed, Bargeld and Harvey are burning everything with their guitars. Brother, My Cup Is Empty and Christina The Astonishing, the stories of a beggar and of a saint, deliver the most introspective moments of the album.
Compared to its predecessor, LET LOVE IN (Elektra, 1994) looks like a minor album, but many tracks stand among the singer’s opus: Do You Love Me, about the sexual initiation of a boy, is one of Cave’s best ballads, focused on the piano section and the singer’s skills as a crooner. Jangling Jack revamps his satanic vocal performances, a psychotic in between Iggy Pop and James Thirlwell a.k.a. Foetus. The propulsive Thirsty Dog remains one of the most swinging and overwhelming rock songs by the Australian bard, while Loverman is one of his most representative and personal.
MURDER BALLADS (Reprise, 1996) sees Cave shifting his interest towards the alternative gothic ballad. It’s a parade of killers, victims and foul crimes, often driven by love and passion. The pace of Song Of Joy is set by the pulsating tone of a telephone out of service, the police investigating a terrible murder and trying to call, ghosts, serpents and wolves lurking everywhere. Everything but “joy”. Stagger Lee, about the famous murder case, is perhaps Cave’s most swaggering song: martial pace, theatrical performance, and the dirtiest lyrics ever. The Curse of Millhaven tells the story of women and children died in the slums during a fire, another work testifying Cave’s siding with the underdog. Lovely Creature is an evocative and erotic ride into the night, brightened only by a girlie jingle, while the drums are setting the pace from the beginning to the end.
THE BOATMAN’S CALL (Reprise, 1997), NO MORE SHALL WE PART (Mute, 2001, the last album featuring Blixa Bargeld), NOCTURAMA (Mute, 2003) and ABATTOIR BLUES / THE LYRE OF ORPHEUS (Mute, 2004) show a less inspired Cave at peace with himself and his family, looking for the perfect ballad, committed to soundtracks, and to lyrics that start to sound manneristic. Meanwhile Bargeld leaves the band, and The Bad Seeds must find a new direction.
A couple of years later, Cave revamps his career with the Grinderman project: the band members are the singer himself, Warren Ellis, Martyn P. Casey and Jim Sclavunos.
GRINDERMAN (Mute, Anti, 2007) is a sonic prodigy closer to the Birthday Party’s post-punk. Get it On is an electric tornado of distorted guitars on a tribal carpet of metallic piano tones; No Pussy Blues starts as a an electric post-punk, soon to be destroyed by a terrifying guitar feedback; Electric Alice is another gem, its tension built on the drum beat and the exotic guitars. The title-track is an hypnotic ballad reliving the times of the Bad Seeds, soothing the listener’s ears before Depth Charge Ethel erupts into a furious rock’n’roll; Honey Bee is another bomb, jumping off the rails of rock through a distorted organ and roaring guitars; When My Love Comes Down is probably the best song of the album, a mid-tempo rock ballad filled with noise.
The Bad Seeds too seem to be rejuvenated by the Grinderman sound, as shown in DIG!!! LAZARUS DIG!!! (Mute, 2008). Night Of The Lotus Eaters is one of the most hypnotic songs ever, every instrument in tune, the rhythm just repeating two chords over and over. The soft Hold On To Yourself is one of Cave’s recent classics, embellished by noisy guitars and the singer’s solemn singing.
An inspired Cave returns 2 years later with GRINDERMAN 2 (Mute, 2010). If the cover of the first album shows a masturbating monkey, the second one displays a savage wolf standing in the middle of a living room. The message is clear, Cave’s music is a wild animal trapped into a comfortable house and ready to bring mayhem. The boogie of Mickey Mouse And The Goodbye Man promptly puts on a show, with a howling Cave accompanied by twisted guitars and thumping drums that look like fighting each other. Worm Tamer is another storm of sounds while Palaces Of Montezuma, inspired by The Rolling Stones, is one of the few catchy (and commercial) songs Cave recorded during his career. The cacophonous blues of Heathen Child and the hellish When My Baby Comes complete the album. This work proves that Cave can still deliver great music.
The singer and the Bad Seeds will return to the avant-garde ballad with PUSH THE SKY AWAY (Mute, 2013): the results are doubtful, but the experience of Grinderman brings hope for the future. Nick Cave remains an eclectic artist, jumping from blues to post-punk and even classic music, and who knows what he’s up to. The Australian shaman is still around, lurking on the music world and defying the laws of the industry over and over again.
From Her To Eternity (1984) 8 ½
The Firstborn Is Dead (1985) 8
Your Funeral… My Trial (1986) 7 ½
Tender Prey (1988) 8
The Good Son (1990) 9
Henry’s Dream (1992) 7 ½
Let Love In (1994) 7
Murder Ballads (1996) 6 ½
Boatman’s Call (1997) 6
No More Shall We Part (2001) 6½
Nocturama (2003) 5
Abattoir Blues / The Lyre of Orpheus (2004) 5 ½
Grinderman (2007) 7
Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!! (2008) 6 ½
Grinderman 2 (2010) 6½
Push The Sky Away (2013) 5 ½