Speaking deviated truths: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, 1997-2003

A fortnight ago, I wrote that Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ Murder Ballads (1996) was an exorcism. This casting out of demons was partially informed by changes in Cave’s personal life, and one of the album’s signature duets signalled more changes to come. The intensity of Cave’s haunting collaboration with PJ Harvey, ‘Henry Lee’, was a precursor of their brief, passionate relationship.

Only a year after the release of Murder Ballads, the Bad Seeds released The Boatman’s Call. The album stripped away the venom that had infected so much of the band’s releases earlier that decade and replaced it with a reflection on love, loss and desire. The lyrics are more humbled and introspective than before, the music quieter and stripped back to the barest essentials – a piano, occasional guitar, and the quietest of percussion to guide Cave’s mournful, trembling voice.  It is not unreasonable to say that this album truly heralded the opening of a new era for the Bad Seeds, even more definitively than the maturity and consistency of The Good Son signalled a split from the earlier recordings.

The Boatman’s Call is the first album of Cave’s that I loved on my own terms. Where the majority of my friends yearned for the fire and brimstone of the early 90s, I found this album had a poise and grace that I’d never experienced before. ‘Idiot Prayer’ remains a standout track for me, with its refrain that
“If you’re in Heaven then you’ll forgive me, dear, because that’s what they do up there
If you’re in Hell, then what can I say… you probably deserved it anyway.”

After the flurry of releases in the early 1990s, The Boatman’s Call was the last Bad Seeds album for the decade. The last few years of the millennium saw numerous tours, side-projects and Cave’s marriage in 1999 to former model Susie Bick. It would be 2001 before the band reassembled in the studio for No More Shall We Part. Despite loving the earlier album, the intervening years had seen a lot of change, for me, and I wasn’t immediately drawn to their music. When I did eventually pick the album up a few months after its release, I was immediately impressed by how Cave had blended the softer sounds with touches of his earlier fire. No More Shall We Part is poignant but wearied. It is dressed with domesticities that are light-years away from the rough-hewn edges of the Bad Seeds, and indeed the Birthday Party before them. For what it’s worth, I feel that there is also a sense of closure to several of the final tracks. For my money, if this was the final album that the Bad Seeds ever released, it’d be seen as a successful synthesis of The Boatman’s Call’s broken-hearted dignity with the spite of earlier releases.

But, there was more to come. Two years after No More Shall We Part, Cave brought us Nocturama (2003). And, well, what can I say about that? Nocturama is a fractious and divisive recording. For some, it is a long-overdue reinjection of rock and rawness back into the Bad Seeds’ ethos. For others, its a low point, a musical nadir with cliched lyrics and predictable musical hooks. I fall closer to the latter position than the former, I must admit. The album has some good songs, but it’s not a great album, certainly not anywhere near the peaks that the band had scaled so recently. It saw some members of the band come to the fore – notably Warren Ellis, the violinist who’d joined the band as a guest musician in Murder Ballads – while others saw their contribution shrink to historic lows – Conway Savage, possibly due to scheduling conflicts, only appeared on the album for occasional backing vocals. It marked the last Bad Seeds album for Blixa Bargeld, who left the band shortly afterwards to concentrate on Einsturzende Neubatuten. Bargeld, you may recall, had been a member of the band since From Her to Eternity almost twenty years before. His departure was symbolically significant, and reflected tectonic plates shifting in the band’s structure and sound that would inform the years to come.

Next week: endings and beginnings

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