An inescapable truth of Nick Cave is that he has always loved and killed his women in equal measure.
Romance and violence colour almost every Bad Seeds album, and before then too; one barely needs to scratch the surface of The Birthday Party’s output to find the same themes repeating. ‘Deep in the Woods’, to take one example, sees Cave “take her from rags right through to stiches.”
The Bad Seeds’ early years had their fair share of love songs and blood songs, but as the decade progressed it seemed that a turning point may have been reached. In The Good Son, we have the an inkling that all that rage and vitriol may be giving way to something else. In ‘Lucy’, Cave tells us that “I’ll love her forever, I’ll love her for all time / I’ll love her till the stars fall down from the sky.” Similarly, in ‘The Ship Song’, Cave croons that “we make a little history, baby, every time you come around.”
In the following album, Henry’s Dream, these competing themes manifest at the extremes. On one hand we have the saintly hymn ‘Christina the Astonishing’, but within a few minutes we meet ‘John Finn’s Wife’ with her “legs like scissors and butcher’s knives, a tattooed breast and flaming eyes”. There’s also some romantic bombast that will reappear in later albums – ‘Straight to You’, for example – but in essence Cave has reverted back to venom toward the fairer sex. This is perhaps most obvious in ‘Brother, My Cup is Empty’, where we are told that
I cannot blame it all on her – to blame her all would be a lie
For many a night I lay awake and wished that I could watch her die
To see her accusing finger spurt, to see flies swarm her hateful eye
To watch her groaning in the dirt, to see her clicking tongue crack dry
An element of impotence or sexual frustration also surfaces at times, with ‘Jack the Ripper’ snarling in frustration at a woman who rules the house “with an iron fist”.
Let Love In has a different tone, significantly softening the tone of its predecessor. We haven’t quite gone back to where The Good Son left off, but the savagery of Henry’s Dream seems like a relapse rather than a return to form. 1994 presents us with a more complex take on the subject than previous albums. Here, the women are awe-inspiring, if slightly terrifying. The opening song presents us with a woman who
… was given to me to put things right
And I stacked all my accomplishments beside her
Still I seemed so obsolete and small
I found God and all His devils inside her
The following track, ‘Nobody’s Baby Now’, develops the theme;
I loved her then and I guess I love her still
Hers is the face I see when a certain mood moves in
She lives in my blood and skin: her wild feral stare, her dark hair, her winter lips as cold as stone
In the end, the album culminates with love itself being assaulted; the title track assures us that it is “far worse to be Love’s lover than the lover that Love has scorned”.
In early 1996, the Bad Seeds released Murder Ballads. It was a rough exorcism, the culmination of all Cave’s darknesses into a recording both amazing and deeply disturbing. On the strength of the album’s first single, ‘Where the Wild Roses Grow’, the album rocketed up the charts. Cave’s duet with Kylie Minogue had a lighter, more ethereal tone to it than much of the album. ‘Song of Joy’, which opens the album, is dirge-like in comparison, providing us with the eponymous, doomed Joy who is eventually “bound with electrical tape… stabbed repeatedly and stuffed into sleeping bag.”
Not of all Cave’s output in 1996 was so horrific – or, at least, so humourless. The denouement of ‘The Curse of Millhaven’ tells us that “it’s Rorschach and Prozac and everything is groovy,” while ‘King Kong Kitchee Kitchee Ki-Mi-O’ – a rambling b-side – is a decidedly odd tale of Mr Frog and Miss Mouse, along with owls, bats and bumblebees.
My entry point to the Bad Seeds was an offcut. A friend from work and I traded CDs for a few days in January 1996 (I feel terrible, now, that I can’t remember the friend’s name for the life of me). One of the CDs was the single to ‘Where the Wild Roses Grow’. The title track was fine, but there was something about the second song that grabbed me. It had a spirit to it I’d never encountered before; a gift of storytelling, filled with darkness, spontaneity and humour in equal measure. ‘The Ballad of Robert Moore and Betty Coltrane’ was all I needed to set me on the path.
There was a thick-set man with frog-eyes was standing at the door
And a little bald man with wing-nuts ears was waiting in the car
Well, Robert Moore passed the frog-eyed man as he walked into the bar
And Betty Coltrane she jumped under her table
“What’s your pleasure?” asked the barman, he had a face like boiled meat
“There’s a girl called Betty Coltrane that I have come to see”
“But I ain’t seen that girl ’round here for more than a week”
And Betty Coltrane she hid beneath the table
Well, then in came a sailor with mermaids tattooed on his arms
Followed by the man with wing-nut ears who was waiting in the car
Well, Robert Moore sensed trouble, he’d seen it coming from afar
And Betty Coltrane she gasped beneath the table
Well, the sailor said, “I’m looking for my wife! They call her Betty Coltrane”
And the frog-eyed man said, “That can’t be! That’s my wife’s maiden name!”
And the man with the wing-nut ears said, “Hey, I married her back in Spain”
And Betty Coltrane crossed herself beneath the table
Well, Robert Moore stepped up and said, “That woman is my wife”
And he drew a silver pistol and a wicked Bowie knife
And he shot the man with the wing-nut ears straight between the eyes
And Betty Coltrane she moaned under the table
Well, the frog-eyed man jumped at Robert Moore who stabbed him in the chest
As Mr. Frog-Eyes died, he said, “Betty, you’re the girl that I loved best”
Then the sailor pulled a razor and Robert blasted him to bits
And, “Betty, I know you’re under the table!”
“Well, have no fear,” said Robert Moore, “I do not want to hurt you
Never a woman did I love near half as much as you
You are the blessed sun to me, girl, and you are the sacred moon”
And Betty shot his legs out from under the table
Well, Robert Moore went down heavy with a crash upon the floor
And over to his thrashing body Betty Coltrane she did crawl
She put the gun to the back of his head and pulled the trigger once more
And blew his brains out all over the table
Well, Betty stood up and shook her head and waved the smoke away
Said, “I’m sorry, Mr. Barman, to leave your place this way”
As she emptied out their wallets, she said, “I’ll collect my severance pay”
Then she winked and threw a dollar on the table
(You’ll note here that Cave has turned around the subject of murderous rage here; now, finally, the woman has a turn to survive the bloodshed – and about time too.)
One of the odder things about Murder Ballads is that, for all its horror and torment, it’s amongst the band’s bestselling albums – you can thank Kylie for that. For those keen to explore Cave’s mid-90s output, I’ll say it’s got some fantastic songs but that it isn’t an easy listen; it’s the sound of a band casting out their demons.
It’s also the sound of new beginnings for the band, with two new members joining the Bad Seeds here (albeit initially only as guest musicians on this release). These new members were Jim Sclavunos, percussionist and one-time Sonic Youth drummer, and Warren Ellis, violinist for The Dirty Three. These two musicians informed much of the Bad Seeds’ development for the decade to come. As their influence waxed, that of founding Seeds Blixa Bargeld and Mick Harvey began to wane – but that’s for next week.
There were also new beginnings for Cave himself. He had left Brazil behind, and with it his relationship with Viviane Carneiro. Amongst the massacres of Murder Ballads, we can claim a glimpse into his new romance. His duet with PJ Harvey on Murder Ballads, ‘Henry Lee’ is enthralling, and one of my favourite recordings of Cave’s. For those who feel like YouTubing it, the unbroken camera movements of the accompanying music video provide a hypnotic demonstration of their growing attraction. The relationship was to prove brief and torrid, and his reaction to the passion and chaos of those years would irrecoverably change the direction of the Bad Seeds’ evolution.
Next week: The Boatman’s Call