Pinning down Nick Cave’s primary occupation over the past 25 years is an unforgiving task. From musician to novelist to actor to director, the uncompromising Australian boasts a CV so multifaceted it could rival the Karma Sutra for positional variation. Cave followers may argue the payoff is equally as satisfying.
Such diversity has bestowed universal acclaim upon the former Birthday Party hellraiser; his stock escalating in both the Hollywood Hills and the British high street (that wretched baritone bellowing through Topshop incites the most curious thrill). Last year’s Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds (NC&TBS) LP, Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!, peaked at a career high number four in the UK album charts, while his 2005 screenplay, The Proposition, was not only the toast of Tinseltown, it somehow managed to engulf Ray Winstone in an air of respectability.
Never has Nick Cave been more acceptable or, indeed, profitable. And, despite the pretence of quarter century celebrations, it doesn’t take much to work out why Mute Records have reissued the first four instalments of NC&TBS’s 14 album-spanning career (the rest are due over the course of the next 12 months). Not that the 51 year-old will mind; he’s always been cute to commercial appeal. Remember his moribund crow impeding the reels of kid-friendly blockbuster Shrek 2?
Cynicism aside, these early recordings demand to be heard. They are, after all, audible artefacts of a proto-Gothic wild child reinventing himself as devout Blues statesman; LPs that have fashioned the contours of a monolithic career. If anything, this particular quartet – From Her to Eternity, The First Born Is Dead, Kicking Against the Pricks and Your Funeral... My Trial – deserves reappraisal in a more appreciative public sphere, given their initial impoverished chart remuneration.
Following Birthday Party’s smack-entangled demise in 1983, Cave and longstanding (until this year) confrere Mick Harvey were attuned to everything but unit shifting. It shows. Their debut effort as NC&TBS (the line-up completed by ex-Magazine bassist Barry Adamson, Einsturzende Neubauten's Blixa Bargeld and axe-man Hugo Race), 1984’s From Her To Eternity, is fraught with rabid staccato arrangements that still rub the ears raw with acrid vigour. But, while Saint Huck’s blood red cut continues to ooze feral intensity, the years have depreciated many of the ghoulish stampedes as over-dramatic Halloween pastiche.
For once, blame cannot be apportioned to rank-rotten 80s production (if anything, these recordings outpunch today’s retrograde gloss). No, Cave has simply upped his game ever since. Today, he’s a larynx-busting powerhouse capable of executing bellow and croon with gymnastic aplomb, but back in the days of Berlin opium dens, tonality played little part in his violent reveries; a gut-wrenching sneer being the preferred method of delivery. In 2009, From Her To Eternity booms out like Rocky Horror cabaret.
By The First Born Is Dead’s release in 1985, the band had replaced horror-shtick with Wild West iconography. Tales of jailers, sheriffs, droughts and outlaws bullet-hole Wanted Man and Blind Lemon Jefferson’s blind-drunk narratives, while the cinematic arrangements of Harvey et al are heaving with jailhouse clang and the brawling furore of Arizona barrooms. A creaky slow burner, the album marked a first foray into the neo-Blues balladry that underpins the group’s most revered output; Tupelo’s dank oscillations paving the way for shuddering totems The Hammer Song and The Mercy Seat.
Cave himself was unravelling as a songwriter of granite brevity, drawing inspiration from the Old Testament’s tombstone parables and the folklore of the American West. So it seemed a peculiar call when Kicking Against the Pricks (1986) fire-cracked in as a ream of cover versions. It should have been the album that shot NC&TBS stone dead. Instead it did the opposite. Cave used ...Pricks as a vantage from which to leap into the pantheon of vocal giants, appropriating numbers by Cash, Hooker, Reed and Orbison and sodomising them with a debauched, salacious tongue. His range was vast, his intentions overt: Nick Cave was ready to unleash his very own beast. And how.
Twenty-three years may have passed since its release but Your Funeral, My Trial (1986) still snarls with accomplishment. Reeking pious soap-box preaching and the antithetical char of heroin-sick desolation, the record’s serrated incantations reveal a group gearing up for its creative overture. Vocally, Cave is in imperious form; part Bukowski-aping degenerate (Hard On For Love, Scum), part doomsaying harbinger (Jack’s Shadow, Sad Waters). The Bad Seeds are equally enforcing, tautly reeling in wild-eyed beasts The Carny and She Fell Away with murder in mind.
In retrospect, Your Funeral... was a green light for the schooled brilliance of The Good Son and Henry’s Dream and a record that underlines every aspect of Cave’s bulging resume: the screenplays, the film scores, the side-projects, Christ, even the acting. It was, in every sense, a battering ram that marked the exaltation of Nick Cave.