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Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
Album Reissues Julian Marszalek , May 19th, 2011 11:05

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With Nick Cave reportedly ready to return to his day job with the Bad Seeds following his second libidinous swamp rock outing with Grinderman, the (to date) third quarter of his career resurfaces as part of Mute Records' ongoing remasters series of albums by the multi-national ensemble. To revisit these reissues is to confirm and confound one's perception of these four pivotal releases in the canon of Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds – a period that saw the band close the book on one chapter of their career and open another.

While picking up where Henry's Dream left off, 1994's Let Love In finds Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds finally grasping and mastering the sound they'd been striving to achieve since1986's Your Funeral, My Trial. Defining a new vernacular in rock music, the band's eighth album not only paints from broad brush strokes that saw them tackling a number of wide ranging styles – the demented lust of 'Loverman' and 'Do You Love Me?', the heartfelt yet pained balladry of 'Nobody's Baby', the speaker-shredding intensity of 'Jangling Jack' and 'Thirsty Dog' – but, as evidenced by the chilling intensity of 'Do You Love Me? (Part 2)' also a subtlety that reveals great thought, empathy and sensitivity. As much a summation of what had gone on before, Let Love In stands as a culmination of a decade's work.

Depending on your point of view, 1996's Murder Ballads is either one the band's high water marks or the worst of the four re-issues on presentation here. To these ears the album falls into the latter category and remains one of the most ignored of all of Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds' records round these parts. To be re-acquainted with Murder Ballads is to be reminded of a band at the point of self-parody. Violence, death and retribution had always loomed large in Cave's work – "I stuck a six inch gold blade inside the head of a girl" was one such early shocker that still sounds as uncomfortable as it did upon its release almost 30 years ago – but, spread over nine tracks and 64 homicides, the effect is reduced to little more than charicature and a serious lapse in judgement that's more akin to The Fast Show's 'The Long Big Punch Up' sketch than a matter for serious consideration.

Murder Ballads offers little by way of examining homicide and its effects on its victims and those traumatized by it. One suspects that it does little more than to titillate the kind of suburban white kids who find their crotches stiffening at repeated recorded mentions of "motherfuckers" but who'd be the first to dive under a table and fill their pants the moment a pint glass shatters down their local. Granted, the band's playing is magnificent throughout but that's still not enough to elevate this sorry album beyond hokey comedy. Murder Ballads would have worked as a judiciously pruned EP but instead signs its own death warrant.

The Boatman's Call would have come as sharp relief even it hadn't been the magnificent opus that it is. Arriving a year after its predecessor, this was the album one had suspected Cave would always make. Material such as 'Straight To You' and 'The Ship Song' had demonstrated Cave's knack of writing romantic ballads but this collection saw the singer elevate his craft to an entirely new level. Essentially a solo album, this was Cave laying his soul bare with an autobiographical slant that had barely been hinted at in his previous work. Gone was the possessed preacher of yore and his place stood moments of stark tenderness. 'Brompton Oratory', '(Are You) The One That I've Been Waiting For?' and 'Into My Arms' are some of Cave's most sincere works while the sparse and measured arrangements create an atmosphere of introspection and honesty that ensure the album's timeless placement in the pop firmament.

It's hardly surprising that No More Shall We Part took fours years to appear after The Boatman's Call. Having opened himself so wide it should come as little wonder that Cave considered what he had left to offer. In some ways, No More Shall We Part is a sequel of sorts to its predecessor, as once again love becomes the overriding theme with the piano at the centre of the musical ring. To revisit the album is to discover a number of forgotten about joys – 'Love Letter', 'Hallelujah' and 'And No More Shall We Part' reacquaint themselves creditably – but the fact that 'Fifteen Feet Of Pure White Snow' was greeted with the biggest cheers on the tour in support of this album was telling. Moreover, with Warren Ellis' violin taking place of Blixa Bargeld's ominous guitar prior to taking over as the band's Minister Of Sinister Noises, the album lacks the tension that The Bad Seeds are so adept at creating and at a whopping 67 minutes overstays its welcome by a good three or four songs.

With the benefit of hindsight, No More Shall We Part was a bridging album. Its faltering uncertainty would eventually lead to The Bad Seeds' re-birth in the shape of Abattoir Blues/The Lyre Of Orpheus double set and the origins of Grinderman. One fact remains inescapable: even when not firing on all cylinders, Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds still make albums that are head and shoulders above most others. Possessed of a singular vision, the band are not only among the finest songwriters and musicians of their generation but also of any generation you care to name. Artists such as these have always been in rare supply; artists that strive, that reach to new levels of statement and achievement. Even when they fall short, the place where they reside is still unachievable for the most of the dross that's showered with undeserved garlands and that's why they should be held ever close. Amen to that.

Matthew from Song, by Toad
May 19, 2011 3:17pm

Whilst I don't entirely disagree with your comments on Murder Ballads, I think you're being way too harsh. It may have a slight pantomime edge to it, but if you just listen to them as pop songs there's still a lot there to enjoy.

That's just a matter of personal taste though, so hardly worth mentioning, but what really did surprise me was your description of No More Shall We Part as a bridging album to Orpheus/Abbatoir.

I think No More Shall We Part stands up in its own right, and feels to me much more like a whole, intact piece of work. The 'faltering' description applies more, in my view, to Nocturama, which is an odd album with some great highlights but no real clarity of purpose. It was this slight loss of direction that they seemed to blow out of the water with Abbatoir/Orpheus, not anything on No More Shall We Part, which seems like a pretty bloody solid album to me.

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mrsunburn
May 19, 2011 4:31pm

Like Murder Ballads? That's okay, it's just a difference of opinion. Oh and by the way... YOU'RE A SUBURBAN WHITE KID WHO SHITS HIMSELF WHEN SOMEONE MAKES A FIST.

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Tim Russell
May 20, 2011 6:23am

Let Love In is Cave's finest hour in my opinion. The Bad Seeds haven't sounded better before or since, the lyrics are brilliant, and Cave is brimming with menace throughout.

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Dave
May 22, 2011 12:42am

I couldn't disagree more about "The Boatman's Call." I thought then and still think that it's a piece of dreck. I'm a longstanding Cave fan, going all the way back to the beginning, and for me nothing touches those first five albums. I love the man and what he's achieved throughout his career, and I respect that he wants to grow and try out different things even if it alienates a portion of his audience. But "Boatman" threw me so completely, I didn't come back to him until "Lyre" -- and then only grudgingly. For me, this is a tremendously weak period in Cave's output. But its bookends? I could throw on "From Her to Eternity" or "Grinderman 2": either will make me feel like I'm 15 again. Magic.

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Grondy
May 24, 2011 1:03am

In some respects, the above article misses the point of 'Murder Ballads'. This album saw Cave attempt to clear the boards and wipe the slate clean. He took the annoying King of Goth, crooner of doom image, which had plagued him through out his career, and rode it straight into town and had some fun with it. And for the most part, it works. Cave’s reworking of mostly traditional ballads manages to breathe new life into a well established form of song writing, particularly Henry Lee and the blackly humorous Stagger Lee. To toss them off as self indulgent is to misinterpret their intent. The self-parody contained within the ballads was very intentional. Almost proclaiming, I can do this and do it well but I’m finished with it, whether you like it or not. Indeed, he rarely revisits this narrative style of writing, which in some sense is a great pity because he’s a natural story teller.

His previous release 'Let Love In' was greeted with a lukewarm reception and criticised for being unoriginal, something which perplexed Cave because he felt it was a very personal album, so in a sense 'Murder Ballads' was a fuck you but it was also a very deliberate closing of a chapter. One must remember that 'Boatman's Call' was recorded in tandem with 'Murder Ballads', and it would be the former that marked Cave's new direction, for better or worse. Indeed, his albums as a balladeer of love songs have ranged from awful, Nocturama, to patchy, Lyre of Orpheus. Personally, I miss the narrative drive of the early work and it is in this sense that ‘Murder Ballads’ should be celebrated for what it is: a humorous, sometimes melancholy, sometimes raucous, well delivered collection of songs.

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May 25, 2011 12:10pm

Cave faltered quite badly after The Boatman's Call, and No More... and Nocturama are poor. Thankfully, he got his mojo going again on Abbatoir Blues.

It's strange that after decades spent delivering fury, darkeness, licentiousness and violence (and good on him for that) Cave's masterpiece should be such a quiet, considered, unashamedly beautiful work. He's only managed to convincingly achieve the tenor of those heights again with Grinderman's Jesus of the Moon.

Incidentally, if you want to hear Love Letter as it should be performed, rather than the pallid version on No More..., hunt out Cave's The Secret Life of the Love Song CD, which also contains a bewilderingly moving version of Sad Waters.

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May 25, 2011 12:28pm

While I don't care for Murder Ballads, Grondy's points are well made. For all its virtues, Let Love In was seen as a little underwhelming at the time of its release. It was by turning the caricature up to 11 on MB that Cave both found a wider audience and cleared the decks for Boatman's Call. The willed dumbness of MB (I don't necessarily mean this as a criticism) and the celeb duets (Kylie! Polly!) saw it embraced by a wider public that had previously shunned Cave's better work. Tis often the way (Shiny Happy Peopple, anyone?)

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