If there were ever an artist who has passed the half-century mark in age and is making new works every bit as engaging, if not more so, than what was created in their so-called "prime," it has to be Nick Cave.
Well, we can throw Bob Dylan and his last few releases in there, too... but damned, if this Cave mofo ain't on a roll! And a multi-faceted one at that. Since turning the big 5-0 in 2007, he's churned out his second novel, screenplays, soundtracks and a fantastic sophomore album with side-project Grinderman, not to mention his ongoing efforts with longtime band The Bad Seeds, for which he is most noted. Check out our coverage of all of the above, here, here and here.
Like Dylan, the strength of Cave's back catalog makes this feat that much more impressive. For proof, we now have the third set of reissues of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' 14-disc studio album catalog, taking us from album eight through 11. On these four discs, Cave matures into a songwriter that can not only approach the stature of his inspirations -- Cash, Cohen, Dylan -- but justifiably place himself on a pedestal alongside them.
As was the case with the first set and the second set of reissues, this quartet of albums is each packaged with a remastered CD and a DVD containing the album remixed in 5.1 surround sound, single B-sides and other songs in stereo and surround, album-era music videos and episodes of Do You Love Me Like I Love You, a multi-part documentary film of some of the Bad Seeds and their associates discussing each album.
Let Love In (originally released in 1994)
A more refined effort than its predecessor, Let Love In is something of an older, wiser brother to 1992's Henry's Dream, continuing its sibling's universal themes of life, death, good, evil and, of course, love. The Bad Seeds are still appropriately loose as a band, but the production here is considerably tighter than before lending some gravitas as Cave delves deeper into his subjects. On opener "Do You Love Me?" he extols love with a curious detachment before revealing in the last verse "I knew before I met her that I would lose her." Love is a terrible tormentor in the magnificent title track, but Cave's resigned to look for it again in the closer "Do You Love Me (Part Two)." Along the way, the singer spells out his devotion, literally, in the loping "Loverman" and there's plenty of black humor in "Jangling Jack" and the self-aggrandizing lament "Lay Me Low," the Bad Seeds raging through the former and restrained in the latter. Featuring tubular bells and driven by a spooky oscillator, the centerpiece of the album is the fantastic beware-the-devil noir narrative of "Red Right Hand."
Murder Ballads (originally released in 1996)
With a catalog already heavy-laden with songs about mayhem, murder and death, it was only a matter of time before Cave and Co. dedicated an entire album to those themes. The pleasant surprise of Murder Ballads is the astonishing breadth of their different takes on the same subject matter. "Song of Joy" is grisly and somber, while the update of traditional "Stagger Lee" is vulgar and jaunty (and the campy, homoerotic video, included on the DVD, is a work of art unto itself). PJ Harvey is melodramatic and macabre duetting with Cave on the female-murdering-male "Henry Lee," while the genders are reversed on "Where the Wild Roses Grow" as Cave's character kills off that of pop princess singing partner Kylie Minogue. There's even some comedy, of the gallows humor variety of course, on the vaudevillian "The Curse of Millhaven" with Cave voicing a teenage girl serial killer, "I gotta pretty little mouth... underneath all the foaming." After the nearly 15-minute "O'Malley's Bar," a mass murderer's monologue as he dispatches all said venue's patrons, Cave and the aforementioned vocal guests, along with some others, conclude with Bob Dylan's hopeful "Death Is Not The End" to nicely leaven the preceding morbidity.
The Boatman's Call (originally released in 1997)
While Murder Ballads was more the former titular word than the latter, The Boatman's Call is an entire album of slow-tempo tunes and it may be Cave's masterpiece. It's a direct lyrical about-face from the character studies of its predecessors as the songwriter lays his own soul bare for the first time. The Bad Seeds' accompaniment is the most sparse, subdued and subtle it's ever been and Cave drives much of the material with his own piano playing. The songs revolve around love and God and the best two -- "Into My Arms" and "Brompton Oratory" -- combine the two themes with a particular poignancy. In the former, Cave intones "I don't believe in an interventionist God / But I know, darling, that you do / But if I did, I would kneel down and ask Him / Not to intervene when it came to you." Stunning, it's one of the most gorgeous love songs ever written. In the latter, Cave sips the sacrament with "the smell of you still on my hands." Has there ever been a more beautifully succinct expression of the duality of man's carnal/spiritual nature? Much has been made of whether Cave's romance and breakup with PJ Harvey inspired the love songs, but a longer lasting and ultimately more important relationship is documented on this album as it marks the first appearance of multi-instrumentalist Warren Ellis as a Bad Seed. He will go on to supplant Mick Harvey as Cave's primary musical collaborator not only in the band, but through impressive soundtrack work and the howling magnificence of Grinderman.
No More Shall We Part (originally released in 2001)
No More Shall We Part appeared four full years after The Boatman's Call, by far the longest gap between albums in The Bad Seeds' history to that point. In the interim, Cave married and fathered twin sons while also, reportedly, overcoming heroin and alcohol addictions. There is a contemplative air to the album, as befits Cave's life circumstances and his mid-40s age at time of release. Again, the tempos are slow and stately as Cave ruminates on love and God, and the love of God. There is a hymn-like quality to much of the musical material, which is lushly orchestrated and features the heavenly harmonies of Kate and Anna McCarrigle, though the lyrics both embrace and belie the ecclesiastical conceit. In opener "As I Sat Sadly By Her Side," a man and woman gaze through a window and trade takes on the human condition in a psychologically brutalizing conversation. It's the aural equivalent of an Ingmar Bergman film. On "God Is In The House," Cave sings the hard-won virtues of small town life, versus the horrors of big cities, but at a Stepford-style price that includes breeding all kittens white. In many songs, the narrator sets out for a walk, a metaphor for the mortal journey, that ultimately leaves him with as many questions as answers... much like life. Warren Ellis' mournful violin, particularly on "Oh My Lord," "Sweetheart Come" and the tremendous "Hallelujah," presages the haunting soundtrack work he and Cave will explore in The Proposition, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and The Road, among other films. Taken together with The Boatman's Call, No More Shall We Part positions Cave as a songwriter without peer in his own generation.
All four deluxe reissues are available now.
Keep Phoenix New Times Free... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Phoenix with no paywalls.