The Piano Bares Its Teeth: Reversals and Redemption in Nick Cave’s ‘90s Albums

[23 June 2011]

By Matthew Fiander

PopMatters Associate Music Editor

It’s all about context. If, when you hear “Red Right Hand”, you think of a quasi-meta ‘90s horror film by Wes Craven, chances are it seems ham-handed, worn, maybe even cringe worthy. Nevermind that there are about 40 Nick Cave songs far more fitting for a horror film, the key here is to realize that Wes Craven was smart. Oh, and not at all interested in subtlety. In the same way his film beats us with self-knowledge in a way that now seems as timely and dated as films like Reality Bites, using “Red Right Hand” in the soundtrack is a sledgehammer-soft reminder: This movie is about a killer. True, he couldn’t have picked a better conduit than Cave’s voice, that sickle-sharp growl—half-grin, half-rabid spittle—punctuating each verse with his brimstone delivery of the title. But if soundtracks are two-way streets that represent both the film and the musician, then Craven fails on that reciprocal part.

Not that he’s alone. With all his dirty, wild-eyed dramatics, all the haunting, crazed gravitas of his sound over the decades, you could easily mistake Nick Cave for another creator who lacks subtlety. But to hear “Red Right Hand” in the right context—that is, on its 1994 album Let Love In—is to hear Cave’s keen eye for pace, for detail, for mood, for texture and, yes, for sending a murderous chill down our backs.

But as much as we talk about Cave as a pitch-black, deathly crooner, his ‘90s and early ‘00s output—Let Love In, Murder Ballads, The Boatman’s Call, and No More Shall We Part, all reissued by Mute this May—is as much about healing as it is about tearing the walls down. Through a series of reversals—of sound, of focus, of theme, of our expectations—Cave turns the tables on the gut-rumbling jangle of previous work like Tender Prey and Henry’s Dream. Cave, ever the demonic circus hawker, turned his sights onto something different as he emerged from the ‘90s: Himself. The results are just as troubling as the darkest corners of his murderous imagination, but there’s a final break between person and performer that let us see Nick Cave in a new light, one more complicated and ultimately more human and satisfying.

All Things Move Towards Their End

Let Love In begins—on “Do You Love Me?”—by throwing us into a “night of fire and noise”. Cave is after his “lady of the Various Sorrows” and he searches with his typically grit-toothed fury, spitting out lines with such power you can almost hear the froth hit the microphone. But aside from being a concentrated dose of the Bad Seeds’ sound, expanding on the buzzing acoustics of Tender Prey with thicker instrumentation and rippling electric guitars, it also sets up a series of opposites that run through this album and, really, the three that follow. Cave’s piano here is clean, almost mournful, but Blixa Bargeld’s guitar counteracts it with a sinister groan. Thomas Wylder’s drums are military-steady through the verses, stalking behind Cave’s voice, but they open up in chaotic crashes on the powerful chorus.

Like much of Cave’s discography, much of the praise for Let Love In focuses on Cave’s poetic darkness. Certainly the squawking “Jangling Jack” and the punishing quiet-to-loud violence of “Loverman” confirm the underbelly of the record, but “Do You Love Me?”, troubling though it might sound, is about heartache. Cave insists he “knew before [he] met her that [he] would lose her” and thus that “all things move towards their end”. There’s also the pleading desperation of the title. For all the hyper-masculine stomping of these songs, Cave’s narrator is laid bare here, begging to be validated, and in the end all he can do is admit a subservience to fate. Their doomed affair is just that, doomed, because time marches on and this brand of volatile love has a short fuse.

That loss is what informs the destruction that follows. After admitting a lack of control, we get the devastating balladry of “Nobody’s Baby Now”. There’s a slightly pathetic quality to this title too, that she can only be defined by who she’s with, but Cave uses that assertion of ownership in his favor. The narrator here has “tried to unravel the mystery of Jesus Christ” and “read all the poets and the analysts”, but in the end the woman he loves has died. There’s no explanation that will suit him, no good reason. She’s just gone, taken from him, nobody’s baby.

The song was originally written for Johnny Cash, and certainly would have fit in his late-career American records, but Cave was so taken with it that he kept it, and with good reason. The underlying discomfort that comes out of the song is what makes it so brilliant. Yes, it’s about loss and mourning, but for a voice trying to so hard to push against the constructs about him, to shake off fate and reshape the world, there’s this small feeling that maybe part of him envies her in some strange way, for escaping the world that keeps hitting him with loss. The rest of the record finds Cave’s voices invading other people’s lives with sexual violence (“Loverman”), killing crass and foolish tourists (“Jangling Jack”), and ultimately falling into self-pity when destruction fails (“Thirsty Dog”, “Lay Me Low”).

The troubles in Let Love In come in trying to do what title commands, while the next record, Murder Ballads, is simple declaration. It almost reads like how you’d describe Nick Cave’s solo work as a whole, and it’s somewhat unsurprising that this is a out-of-control, shiny-eyed, and unfailingly brillian record. It’s not quite as controlled as Let Love In, but the focus on that record helped build inherent strengths into this more adventurous set. Like its predecessor, though, Murder Ballads is not exactly what it seems on the surface. There are quieter, subtler confusions buried here that make these songs, and the album, classic.

Once again we start with loss. “Song of Joy” is a tragic tale, told by a traveler in the night, of his murdered wife and daughters. There may be something not quite right about the guy—his hissing recitations of John Milton are self-incriminating—but he feels the loss nonetheless. Again, here, Cave howls “all things move toward their end” and pounds out piano notes like he’s drumming while Bargeld’s guitars swirl around his fanged voice. Once again, we have deep loss framing violence, and the album moves from this into its most unruly song, Cave’s take on “Stagger Lee”.

It’s a hard case to make that Cave isn’t romanticizing murder here. He sings these songs with relish, and the band backs him with wandering, chilling compositions. But among all their cackling joy, Cave and company also offer some sort of criticism of murder ballads. His version of “Stagger Lee” is the clearest example. The sweetly intricate finger-picking of Mississippi John Hurt is nowhere near here, nor is the playful narrative arc of the Grateful Dead’s take. Instead, Cave, ever the articulate master of ceremonies, gives us a song that is, at its heart, pretty insipid. The exchanges between Stagger Lee and his victims are crude and frustrated and the complete opposite of poetic. Cave’s Lee says “motherfucker” more than Miles Davis, and his victims curse right back. There’s nothing poetic about his killing of the ignorant bartender, and with his next killing he actually spurns a woman in favor of dominating another man sexually so in the end the hyper-masculine killer archetype gets turned on its head.

There’s nothing beautiful about the song—even the players squall incoherently over its closing minute—and the crass and foolish dialogue couple with the silly gunshot sounds to make a song that is at once thrillingly violent and utterly meaningless. Other versions hardly let “Stagger Lee” off the hook, but Cave seems to be both paying tribute and calling us out, making us wonder why we revel so much in the darkness, why “murder ballads” are even a recognizable type of song.

Beyond the questions it raises though, Murder Ballads is also the band at both the height of its powers and the height of its energy and creativity. The nearly 15-minute “O’Malley’s Bar” is a stunning achievement, a dank, funky piece that tells a story with such compelling detail that the extended song moves with a brisk and enthralling pace. “Henry Lee’’ pairs Cave with PJ Harvey—whom he had an infamous affair with—and the pair’s chemistry is amazing as Harvey plays the aggressor here and matches Cave’s sinister edge blow for blow. “Where the Wild Roses Grow” features pop-star Kylie Minogue and her sweet voice and the languid strings make this tale from the grave all the more haunting.

The album ends with Bob Dylan’s “Death is Not the End”, and everyone—Cave, Harvey, Minogue, Bargeld, Wylder, Anita Lane, and the Pogues’ Shane Macgowan—sing a verse. You could read it as a big wink, including this Christian song of everlasting hope after the album’s carnage. In retrospect, though, the song actually bridges perfectly to the next record, The Boatman’s Call. Let Love In and Murder Ballads address turmoil and loss, but then use them as an excuse to start breaking things. Until “Death is Not the End” there is no notion of consequence, of tomorrow. Fate is inescapable, and utterly cruel, so mark it with as many dents as you can. Perhaps there’s some sliver of dark hope in the sheer action of these songs, but all this tearing down is more about avoidance than it is about finding something new. Until The Boatman’s Call.

Throw Caution to the Reckless Wind

Murder Ballads is the most brash of these albums, but The Boatman’s Call may be the most difficult. It’s difficultly comes in moving away from all we knew about the Bad Seeds to this point. They had honed their clattering eccentricities into a sweating, seething force, but The Boatman’s Call is a quiet meditation. Cave had divorced his wife, and his affair with Harvey had ended, and he was left with the rubble. You could always here genuine emotion in Cave’s performance—there are details in Let Love In that are too intimate to be anything but autobiographical—but this is the closest we get to Nick Cave the person. In the wake of Murder Ballads’ body count, we have a quiet plea for redemption.

What makes this so jarring is that, well, it’s not exactly a Bad Seeds record. The other players are barely here, it’s mostly just Cave and his piano. You can hear in small moments, like “There Is a Kingdom”, the impressive subtlety of Martyn Casey’s bass work and we also get the sweet scrape of Warren’ Ellis’s violin on songs like “Where Do We Go Now But Nowhere?” and “West Country Girl”. But mostly everyone takes a back seat to Cave here (even more so than usual) and the results are amazing. Where previous records got their attention by clawing at the turf, this album nearly snaps under the players’ restraint.

“West Country Girl”

For his part, Cave brings his underworld croon to the surface and this, along with No More Shall We Part shows him as a pure and striking singer. The affectations get toned down and we just get his sweetly mournful voice that is, for once, searching. Having made a mess over two albums, this one sounds like he’s sorting through it, and opener “Into My Arms” is a melancholy admission, a questioning of all Cave’s beliefs. He claims to not believe in “an interventionist God” or “the existence of angels”, but the ‘you’ he’s singing to calls that into question, especially when he seems to call on those things to bring her back to him.

This is an album of small gestures that show the need for connection or the lack of it. One hand is placed on another (“Lime Tree Arbour”), newlyweds buy the Sunday newspaper but don’t read it (“People Ain’t No Good”), a desperate tryst in a hotel (“Where Do We Go Now But Nowhere”) and so on. The past here is full of regret, sweet moments are overshadowed by the bitter ends they lead to. “People Ain’t No Good” starts with marriage and ends with Cave burying his lost love. “To our love send a dozen white lilies, to our love send a coffin of wood,” he mumbles, the shiny-eyed zeal of the past records gone, the hand he once held now gone.

With all this loss, Cave seems to stop raging against fate and order and actually beds down in it. There’s plenty of biblical references here, but this isn’t so much a religious record as it is an album searching for comfort. “There Is a Kingdom” finds Cave admitting that “there is a king” who “lives without… and lives within”. He seems resigned to this greater power, and this kind of reaching out—with fingers outstretched, rather than coiled into a fist—is not what you’d get from the guy singing “Do You Love Me?”. Even at the records end, when Cave finds solace in a nameless stranger, it’s not about anonymous sex so much as it is about some sort of human contact. “So hold me and hold me, don’t tell me your name, the morning will be wiser than the evening is,” he moans. Whether he’s right or not doesn’t matter, the sheer fact that he’s thinking about tomorrow, and even with a hint of hope, marks a change. The music itself reflects this cautious hope, and cuts against the steely look of Cave in the album’s black-and-white artwork. What looks like defiance in those eyes turns into something far softer, and more self-condemning as you delve into the album. At their most quiet, Cave and the Bad Seeds proved to be their most compelling as well.

No More Shall We Part arrived after a four-year break for the band, which was pretty much unheard of at the time. In the time between albums, Cave kicked drug habits and exercised personal demons, so this record seems like a calmer coda to its predecessor. On its own, it may be a tough sound to reconcile with. It seems tame, not gutted-out in the way The Boatman’s Call is but hushed and straightforward. For Cave, though, it’s an impressive and harrowing album about possibilities. If the previous album took stock of loss, this one tries to move on. Warren Ellis’s violin is in top form—this is where his presence becomes an indelible part of the band’s sound—and the inclusion of Kate and Anna Mcgarrigle’s backing vocals provide bittersweet highs to Cave’s cracked lows.

There’s still darkness here. Songs like “The Sorrowful Wife” and the excellent “Gates to the Garden” still deal with rifts and loss and death, but there’s also a wit’s-end hope to “Love Letter” and “Hallelujah”, perhaps the most revealing song here. His typewriter has “turned mute as a tomb” and his piano is “crouched in the corner of my room with all its teeth bared”. Even writing, singing, performing could only take him so far. The solace he found in the carnage of Let Love In and Murder Ballads couldn’t last, and The Boatman’s Call was merely a first step. Though it may be the least thrilling of these albums, No More Shall We Part is a compelling album about incomplete catharsis. For all we claim music can heal, Cave here reminds us that really, music is just the symbol of healing, not the healing itself. Fixing what we’ve broken is our own work to do. You can feel Cave fighting with himself, with that dark side, on this record. Seven years after we started with “a night of fire and noise”, this album ends with Cave insisting “it grows darker with the day”. It’s an interesting reversal for a performer who hid in chaotic shadows for so long and now, trying to shed light on his own demons is when he truly feels that darkness. Cave was nocturnal—and remained so, apparently, with 2003’s Nocturama—and you can feel him still cowering a bit in the light of day.

“Love Letter”

If Cave’s career was one of transitions, these records would note his biggest and most vital one. Instead, they represent the most jarring breaking and rebuilding we’ve seen from the Bad Seeds. In the same way muscles tear slightly during exercise and heal stronger, Cave and his band found their power in these years, produced their best music, and confidently pressed on to even leaner and strong records in the 2000’s. The extra materials on the Mute reissues of these records reveal well how these albums came together. Most of the b-sides were also on 2005’s three-disc B-sides & Rarities, and the videos are interesting if not revelatory. The ongoing interview series Do You Love Me Like I Love You, though, compiled by Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard, and included on the DVDs shows just how far the fascination with Cave’s work reaches, with compelling questions and insights from fans and band members alike.

Cave is a character than can never be fully known, but in the ‘90s we saw his performer pitted against at least part of his person, and the clash of the two is violent and heartbreaking and ragged and beautiful. Few can twist us into knots the way Cave can, doubling back on his themes, turning on a dime from violence to love and back again, from the unredeemable to the deeply redemptive. He swings wild, but even at his most dramatic, he hits true. For all his thrilling rock theatrics, that’s the real reason we keep coming back.

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