I have been trying to accumulate my thoughts on Nick Cave for awhile now. I feel the need to attempt to quantify the impact he’s had on me and express why I adore his music so much. So many of his characteristics are unique; his songwriting, his musicianship, his delivery, his enigmatic persona, etc., and when I contemplate it all, it soon becomes overwhelming. One thing is for sure; he is one of a kind, and a once in a lifetime, if not ever, artist. This is my best shot at it.
This is not a greatest hits or top X best list, just some personal favorites. I’m going to attempt to highlight the genius and versatility in his music, and while perhaps finally realizing that no amount of words can do the man any justice, I hope that this could possibly serve as a crash course for someone looking to discover Nick Cave but with no idea where to start. For every song I give as an example here, there are a number more in his catalog along the same vein that may be just as good or better. I won’t focus on the actual musicianship of his songs as much as I will the songwriting, lyrics, and all around aura he presents. He has worked with dozens of talented musicians over the years whom I also have much admiration for (I named my pet bunny rabbit Warren Ellis) but to do them justice would require another thousand words at least. His catalog is an extensive, deep, dark journey through a forest at night during a thunderstorm, and ten years after being a casual fan, three of which I was absolute fanatic, there is still uncharted territory for me, and I discover new gems every time I wonder off the path I have traced thus far.
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – “Abattoir Blues”
This is the song I go to first when I expose someone to Nick Cave for the first time. I think the simplicity in the music (the drum beat, whole note piano chords) makes it readily accessible and forces Cave to the forefront where his voice and delivery shine. There’s something easy going about it, something that makes this perfect for cruising on a sunny day with the windows down, however ‘Abattoir’ is French for ‘Slaughterhouse’, and in typical Nick Cave fashion, he finds a way to make the most beautiful, calming things a little bit dark and twisted.
Grinderman – “Palaces of Montezuma”
This is one of his most catchy tunes, and much like the previous song, it finds the perfect balance that Cave juggles so well. Name another artist that can sing “Come on, baby, let’s get out of the cold/and give me your precious love for me to hold” with such a blissful melody right before citing a gift of “The spinal cord of JFK wrapped in Marilyn Monroe’s negligee”. Perfection.
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – “Red Right Hand”
I believe this qualifies as his most well known hit which is often used in movies, such as Dumb and Dumber, but that’s not why I chose to highlight this song. This one is an example of how he can tell you so much by telling you so little. “On a gathering storm comes a tall handsome man, in a dusty black coat, with a red right hand…” Who is this guy he’s talking about? What does he want? Where is he from? You never know, but what you do know is he is nothing good, and that hand didn’t get so red by accident. “You’re one microscopic cog in his catastrophic plan, designed and directed by his red right hand…”
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – “Stagger Lee”
Here we have Cave’s take on the old American folk song about the murder of Billy Lyons by ‘Stag’ Lee Shelton. I haven’t heard many other versions of it to be honest, but I’d venture to guess Cave put quite a twist on it. This is Cave at his most demented and violent, but I won’t spoil it here by citing lyrics for those who haven’t heard it yet. The bass line here is impeccable, providing an irreproachable backdrop to the tale about to be told. The song here is about Stagger Lee, and how he’s unequivocally the baddest motherfucker around, but when I hear it I can’t help but think a bit of Cave is oozing out from the cracks here. It makes me feel like if Cave was sitting in that bar (The Bucket of Blood) as well, he would give Lee a run for his money.
Grinderman – “Kitchenette”
This is the balls out, no-fucks-given song, with hubris and hauteur dripping from every orifice. How else could you possibly muster up the gall to steal an executioner’s woman? The first four lines into that howl of “’cause I want you” might be the most boss thing ever recorded.
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – “Into My Arms”
It’s not all dark alleys, rain and thunder, lost highways, murder, blood and cum though. There is a plethora of gentle love songs in his canon, and in my experience talking with other Nick Cave fans, there is often a divide between those who like tracks like this and the previous five tracks. I tend to lean toward the latter, but the beauty he is capable of is undeniable. Some still lean towards the dark side of love of course, but some just are straightforward proclamations of adoration.
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – “Mermaids”
This is one of my absolute favorite Nick Cave songs (the version on Live from KCRW with an extended Warren Ellis solo is also incredible). The melody and clever lyrics need a spotlight:
“She was a catch, we were a match
I was the match that would fire up her snatch
There was a catch
I was no match
I was fired from her crotch
Now I sit around and watch…”
“I believe in God
I believe in mermaids too
I believe in 72 virgins on a chain; why not? Why not?
I believe in the rapture, for I’ve seen your face
On the floor of the ocean, at the bottom of the rain”
And the flawless melody that carries the chorus make this a masterful piece of art. If this song, which is a good representation of his most current album, is any indication of the direction he is headed then we have a lot to look forward to.
Grinderman – “Man In the Moon”
Perhaps one of his most simple songs musically with only a beautiful piano progression and a haunting looped noise track, this song has a sigh-inducing somberness to it that sits heavy on the soul. I often catch myself staring into space as the opening line comes back around to finish it off and the music fades into the next song where the venomous bass line snaps me out of it.
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – “Hold On to Yourself”
I included this song as an example of what I feel is the methodical approach Cave employs on so many songs. Surely a lot of this is attributed to his band (Warren Ellis shines here with the screeching violin loop played throughout), but how Cave bobs and weaves, slips and counters his way through the lyrics using his mystic drawl to accentuate the melody is incredibly impressive and adroit. Other tracks along this vein that I love are “Cannibal’s Hymn”, “Easy Money”, “We Real Cool”, among others. It seems to me that this is a trait Cave has developed over the latter part of his career, and I couldn’t be more happy about it.
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – “Higgs Boson Blues”
I chose this for the conclusion because it seems to be the most anomalous song in his canon. Clocking in at just under eight minutes, and starting with just a guitar and a whisper, it broods and simmers as Cave sets the stage for this epic tale…
“Can’t remember anything at all
Flame trees line the streets
Can’t remember anything at all
But I’m driving my car down to Geneva
I been sitting in my basement patio
Ah, it was hot
Up above, the girls walk past, the roses all in bloom
Have you ever heard about the Higgs Boson Blues?
I’m going down to Geneva, baby
Gonna teach it to you
Who cares? Who cares what the future brings?”
Can you see it? Because I can. Every single time I listen to it. From there the music and vocals swell, crest, and shrink again like the moon pulling the tide while he cites interactions between Robert Johnson, the Devil, Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus, pigmys and monkeys, the Lorraine Motel (where he takes a room with a view, of course), and how it all intermingles and makes sense is where your guess becomes as good as mine. Somehow I think that’s the point though. It’s a whirlwind for so many reasons. It culminates again back where it started: “Can’t remember anything at all…” as the guitar chords resolve. Maybe it was all just a dream.
As I’m sure it is for everyone, narrowing one of your favorite musician’s work into a favorite list is such a hard thing to do. I feel ashamed and depressed for only including ten songs with this piece. 1800 words later I still feel like I shortchanged the man for everything he has given the world, especially me. This certainly is not an all inclusive piece on Nick Cave, or even of my opinions of him, but just the tip of the iceberg as they so often say. There’s his work with Warren Ellis on movie scores, his early bands, most notably The Birthday Party, his screenplays, his books; the universe Nick Cave has created is something to behold. I would also recommend the artistic documentary 20,000 Days on Earth to anyone, as it is useful for a brief look into Cave’s mind. In that documentary he explains how he treats being a musician just like we treat our jobs. He has a small office space rented close to his home, and goes there every day, sitting in a room with not much else but a typewriter and his thoughts. If that’s not dedication to your craft then I don’t know what is, and when you couple that with such a creative uniqueness, it’s not hard to see why he was able to transcend decades and genres with no sign of his relevance fading.
“He’s a ghost, he’s a god, he’s a man, he’s a guru…”
And he’s a legend.