Nick Cave's Dark Genius
by Jason Gubbels | February 20, 2013
Nick Cave's 15th album under the guise of long-running outfit The Bad Seeds arrives this week. While the gentle electronic touches and digital beats of Push the Sky Away represent a new sonic wrinkle for the man from Warracknabeal, the literary asides and blues affectations remain consistent with the wry theatricality defining his work since the late 1970s. First bursting onto the Melbourne post-punk scene with torturous outfit Boys Next Door, Cave joined Mick Harvey and Rowland S. Howard to form seminal noisemakers The Birthday Party, precipitating a move to London and a refinement of their garage-rock-from-hell aesthetic. Calling card "Happy Birthday" ("Woof woof woof!!!") and Goth send-up "Release the Bats" ("Bite! Bite!") led to 1982's landmark Junkyard LP, highlighted by the staggered rhythms of crazed preacher exorcism "Big Jesus Trashcan."
With the Party over, Cave formed The Bad Seeds in 1984, retaining Mick Harvey while adding Einsturzende Neubauten guitarist Blixa Bargeld and bassist Barry Adamson. This new band allowed the frontman's obsessions with religion and the American South to take a decisive turn toward Weimar cabaret (itself inspired by a move to Berlin), heard in its infancy on debut album From Her to Eternity and emerging in dramatic fashion on 1985's swirling Elvis meditation "Tupelo." A motley assortment of cover tunes surfaced the following year, showcasing Cave's gradual vocal drift away from abyssal shrieks toward the gentler deliveries of Leonard Cohen and Scott Walker, with a cavernous reading of Johnny Cash's "The Singer" becoming a surprise single. As the piano began to assume an ever-greater instrumental voice within Bad Seed performances, the unit closed out the '80s with harrowing death row narrative "The Mercy Seat" (itself later covered by The Man in Black) before the ever-peripatetic Cave shifted operations to Brazil (and a stint in rehab), surprising followers with The Good Son's relaxed collection of smoky ballads, concert favorites "The Ship Song" and "The Weeping Song" foremost among them.
Cave's output throughout the early '90s demonstrated a gradual refinement of these mellowing tendencies, from slinky infatuation ode "Do You Love Me?" to a droll collection of Murder Ballads. The latter welcomed PJ Harvey and Kylie Minogue for detached duets (the latter helping Cave realize his greatest commercial success) and recontextualized mythic bad man "Stagger Lee" into a brute of farcical proportions. With fellow Antipodean and Dirty Three violinist Warren Ellis signing on as a full-time Seed came the arrival of romantic hymn/wedding song/eventual Michael Hutchens elegy "Into My Arms" and a touching cameo for Canada's famed McGarrigle sisters on 2001's "Gates to the Garden."
The departure of Blixa Bargeld in 2003 paradoxically seemed to spur Cave toward his friskiest material in years, from the careening rock of double album Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus through gritty garage side project Grinderman and the thin, wild mercury punch of 2008's "We Call Upon the Author to Explain" ("Prolix! Prolix! Nothing a pair of scissors can't fix!"). Now 55, with a slew of film soundtracks, several screenplays, and two novels to his name, Cave seems semi-comfortable assuming the role of black-humored rock elder. In the five years since the last full-length Bad Seeds project, Mick Harvey has departed even as the electronics of Warren Ellis have taken on a greater role, illustrated by Push the Sky Away lead single "We No Who U R," promising "there's no need to forgive" even while threatening "we know where you live" -- which might be said to exemplify the ethos of one of the more compelling figures to ever come out of the Goth scene.