Up Jumped The Devil: reflections on Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, continued

Apologies, humble reader – this one is a day late. You can thank / blame Stephen Fry for that, as I was lucky enough to attend ‘QI Live’ last night (the tickets being a wonderfully well-chosen birthday present from my radiant wife) and didn’t get home until late. And yes, that’s not much of an excuse seeing as I’ve had a week to write this post, but that’s the best I’ve got.

I must admit, this entry has taken me a lot longer to put together than either of the previous ones. I finished last week with Your Funeral… My Trial, one of the Bad Seeds’ most underrated albums, but the recordings that followed Your Funeral are fan favourites, filled with classic songs that would dominate most homemade mixtapes (and yes, I know I’m showing my age by saying that…). It’s hard to tackle such an era; so many of the tracks are definitive that I’m a little afraid of missing something crucial.

The broad theme of this era, if there is one, is that of change and continuing refinement. As the decade began to turn, the Bad Seeds continued to develop and mature. The indulgences of the band’s earlier albums were now being replaced with something fuller, more confident. This change was as much to do with the Bad Seeds’ ever-evolving membership as their front man – the addition of Kid Congo Powers and Roland Wolf during the late 80s did a great deal to codify the Bad Seeds’ sound. But, there were significant key milestones for Cave too, particularly in the non musical sphere; in no particular order, Cave published his first novel, taken his first stab at a movie career with Ghosts… of the Civil Dead, got himself into rehab and moved from his West Berlin digs to Sao Paulo to be with his new Brazilian girlfriend.

The first song to come from these changing climes was ‘The Mercy Seat’, the opening track to Tender Prey (1988). ‘The Mercy Seat’ is a revelation; blindingly good lyrics over unrelenting, ever-escalating strings. Performed live, it’s a showstopper. Tender Prey has plenty of excellent tracks – ‘City of Refuge’, ‘New Morning’ and the fan-favourite, raucous ‘Deanna’ – but the greatness of ‘The Mercy Seat’ looms over the rest of the album. It’s a rowdy set of songs, and in some senses is a capstone to the first third of the Bad Seeds’ output to date; it has the mixture of folk stories, Southern-tinged spirituals, brawling love songs and snarling, sardonic dirges that reared their heads, in some combination or another, on the previous four albums.

Tender Prey’s wildness is a study in contrasts to the follow-up album. In The Good Son (1990), the Bad Seeds fuse the soulful influences of their mid-‘80s releases with something new. The album retains touches of the hard-edged, Old Testament fire and brimstone of earlier albums, but here they are transformed by a softer, measured tone. The clear example of this new ground is ‘The Ship Song’, an honest-to-goodness love song that stands head and shoulders above so much that had gone before. It can’t dominate the album though, because it’s cheek-to-jowl with ‘The Weeping Song’, one of the band’s most outstanding songs. It’s also the Bad Seeds’ first duet proper (with Blixa Bargeld moved up from backing vocals); a format which they’d return to multiple times in future releases, most notably on Murder Ballads.

The Good Son covers eternal love, glowering doom and Biblical struggle, all mixed with a healthy dose of tragedy, scepticism and passion. It is, perhaps, the first classic Bad Seeds album.

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