Nick Cave once was referred to by a rock reporter in Britain as “a worldwide ambassador for culture”. That’s correct for the most part, but one should add that he is an unlikely person to fill this role given the violent themes featured throughout his work. His work with the Birthday Party and with the Bad Seeds is almost flawless. His two novels and movie scripts are extremely well written. He is a great singer and performer. But rarely, during their lifetime, an artist of such uncompromising vision, has met with the success and acceptance as has Nick Cave.
Cave’s vision for his art has always been entwined with violent imagery and his remarkable lyrics have never shied away from reflecting this. Where some extreme metal bands rap artists will allude to such topics or often use words that feel randomly strung together, Cave does not mince words and constructs detailed narratives, often focusing on cruelty, misery and decay.
In 1996 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds released “Murder Ballads”, their most commercially successful album. It is somewhat of a concept album, given that all the songs are influenced by the tradition of the murder ballad. But then again the material does not stray too far from previous Bad Seeds albums in the nature of the themes explored. The unexpected success of the record is due in no small part to the radio and tv airplay of the duets with Kylie Minogue on “Where the wild roses grow”and with PJ Harvey on “Henry Lee”. The first of these featured a video where Kylie is lying (presumably dead or dying) afloat on a river, an image inspired by the paining “Ophelia”by John Millais.
THe album also has a song about a teenage mass murderer on “The Curse of Millhaven”, a neighborhood bar becoming the scene for a horrific shooting on “O’Malley’s bar”, the twist and amped up violence of the traditional “Stagger Lee”, and even a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Death is not the end”.
Cave had reached a new level of success and acceptance, while his abilities as a songwriter were stronger than had ever been. The Bad Seeds as a band were also at the peak of their abilities. The inspiration for the work had not changed though, unlike some of the artists that reach higher levels of success, but sacrifice their initial intentions in the process.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds had mutated from the notorious punk band, the Birthday Party, a band beloved by punk loyalists. Few bands seemed to thrive more on a violent energy that, at times seemed to be directed towards the destruction of the music and of the audience along with it. With the dissolution on the group, the new formed Bad Seeds gradually changed their songs and Nick Cave advanced in writing songs that often featured narratives about low lives, cheats and people living in abject misery.
In the opening song on “Tender Prey”, Cave sings about a man facing his fate upon being condemned to the electric chair. “The Mercy Seat” would be a live highlight for the group and would even get covered by Johnny Cash. The protagonist finds similarities between his story and that of Jesus Christ, while stubbornly defending himself, only to admit in the last line that he had lied the whole time. Other songs on the album include “Deanna “about a murderous Bonnie and Clyde like couple, “City of refuge” about hiding away from the shame of some great crime and “Mercy” about … murder, once more.
By 1994 when they recorded “Let Love In”, the band was showcasing a lusher sound, with keyboard lines featured higher in the mix and guitarist Blixa Bargeld’s love of improvisation complimenting the songs. Lyrically though Cave had not mellowed at all. In one of their most covered songs, “Red right hand” he sings about a murderer, seemingly possessing supernatural abilities and embodying evil. The song shows Cave’s great attention to details, with the entire town that is the scene for the crimes, being presented to the listeners.
More recently, in 2007, Cave explored once more the the theme of violence as found in biblical texts. “Dig, Lazarus, Dig” has the story of Lazarus put into a modern context, with Cave stating that it was a story he was both fascinated and scared by as a young boy. Cave debates whether or not Lazarus had any say in being resurrected. Furthermore in Cave’s song, the character has done little in his life to warrant salvation.
In a Rolling Stone article concerning Cave’s novel, “The Death of Bunny Munro”, the writer remarked that “Nick Cave will obviously live forever, just because the Devil’s scared of him”. Nick Cave’s pace throughout the years has remained the same and his vision is as clear as it ever was. Proof of that vision, even when concerning a potential Hollywood movie script, can be found in the video below.