The departure of Blixa Bargeld following Nocturama was either harbinger or catalyst of a seismic shift in the Bad Seeds. A new nucleus had formed, driven by an increasing convergence in musical vision from some band members (or, perhaps, an increasing divergence in others). This new sub-group – composed of Cave, Sclavunos, Casey and Ellis – were also assisted by their geographical proximity; the Bad Seeds had always been a scattered bunch, and it was difficult to get the band together for a quick jam. But, that’s what Cave and his band-within-a-band did, and the fruits of their labour produced the backbone to the Bad Seeds’ next album, Abattoir Blues / The Lyre of Orpheus (2004).
Blues and Lyre were released as a double album. They are simultaneously both greater and less than the sum of their parts; there is both brilliance and barely-contained sprawl, and several of the songs might not have made the cut if the album was confined to a single disc. The standout tracks are on Abattoir Blues, which was most informed by the mini-Seeds sub-group. ‘Get Ready For Love’ comes sprinting out of the starting gates, the piano at the spine of ‘Messiah Ward’ is one of the best in a Bad Seeds track, and the gospel fervour of ‘There She Goes, My Beautiful World’ makes it one of the most memorable songs in the Bad Seeds’ entire catalogue.
Abattoir Blues was sufficient evidence that a more collaborative, band-led approach to songwriting with these mini-Seeds could generate some great songs. Soon, Cave took this to a new phase, launching Grinderman as a standalone band. The line-up – Cave, Sclavunos, Casey and Ellis once again – retained their membership cards to the Bad Seeds, but a new moniker let them play new roles that the old group may not have allowed. Cave moved to guitar, for the first time, while Ellis began experimenting with a broader range of musical instruments and effects.
To call Grinderman’s self-titled debut album (2007) a promising effort would be an understatement. The songs are, for the most part, excellent; the sound is rougher, the lyrics lewder, and the hooks meaner than what any would have anticipated. That said, the music isn’t that far removed from similar moments in the Bad Seeds – a line can be unhesitatingly drawn from the priapic ‘Hard On For Love’ (1986) and ‘Loverman’ (1994) through to ‘No Pussy Blues’. In some lights, such lines may be drawn from Grinderman all the way back to The Birthday Party – both bands are infused with a raging sound, after all. Grinderman, ragged and cocksure as it often is, remains a very different beast. That’s not just because of the membership – Mick Harvey, Cave’s long-time collaborator, is noticeably absent from the line-up – but also what inspires that rage. The Birthday Party was infused with youthful swagger and sullenness, while Grinderman is a rocker’s midlife crisis writ large. That’s not to dismiss it, but rather to point out that the rage, here, is at ageing and impotence that is far removed from anything the Birthday Party touched.
It is unsurprising that Grinderman’s success impacted the Bad Seeds when they next met. Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! (2008) was a halfway house between Grinderman’s more immediate recording techniques and the Seeds’ now-familiar form. Critics lauded it as a ‘return to form’. It is, to me, a deathly phrase: once applied, the same critics are likely to apply it again and again, without ever pinpointing what makes an album particularly good or bad. To my proletarian ears, Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! is a reasonable album but still one that ranks in the bottom half of the Bad Seeds’ catalogue. It has some good rock songs that don’t feel too far removed from Henry’s Dream, some moodier songs that feel a little closer to The Lyre of Orpheus or No More Shall We Part – but, that’s all contributes to my discomfort. For all the good songs on the record, Dig feels like a weird mix of awkward missteps and playing it too safe. Yet, it warms the cockles of my heart that I’m so ambivalent toward it; feeling that a Bad Seeds album isn’t ‘your’ Bad Seeds is as old as the hills. It’s like being a Doctor Who fan, when a new Doctor comes through the door; when you dislike them immediately – rightly or wrongly – you know you’re a real fan.
The most recent recording for Cave has been Grinderman 2 (2010). My immediate impression is that it’s a strong album, but I’ve heard much of it before. It builds on the sounds of the previous album, and like 2007’s debut it is about one-third excellent, one-third good and one-third skip it-on-a-random-playlist.
I’ve seen Nick Cave live in concert several times over the years, with the Bad Seeds, with Grinderman, and with an odd melding of the two during a ‘solo’ tour in 2009 where Mick Harvey and Conway Savage joined Grinderman on stage for a handful of songs. Each time has been brilliant, although the spiritualist leanings of the Abattoir Blues tour makes it the highlight of my memories. I’m more interested in an upcoming Bad Seeds album that Grinderman’s next efforts – the latter band interests me, but they verge close to shtick at times. One thing is certain: whenever the next album lands, it will most certainly not be the old Bad Seeds. After many long years, Mick Harvey left the band after Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!. It ended three decades of musical partnership with Cave; Harvey had been a founding member of the Boys Next Door, Birthday Party and the Bad Seeds. Whatever direction the band go in next, it will be something truly different. And for better or worse, I’ll be there at the music store ready to buy it on the first day it’s out.