Saturday, November 2, 2019

Birthday Party / Nick Cave and the Bad Seed

[from a guidebook to alternative rock, 1995]

Emerging, like some hideous butterfly, from the Bowie-damaged New Wave chrysalis of The Boys Next Door, the Birthday Party were the most abandoned, sensorily deranged Dionysian rock'n'rollers since The Stooges.  But although Nick Cave's self-confessed ur-Text was Funhouse, his grandiose delivery and baroque lyrics were actually closer to Iggy's own model, Jim Morrison.  Like Jimbo, Cave had poetic ambitions that eventually blossomed in his Southern Gothic novel And The Ass Saw The Angel.

The first B. Party LP (actually a compilation of single and EP material, later reissued as Heehaw) sees the band shaking off quirk-out influences like Pere Ubu and Captain Beefheart and getting ever more primal. An  awesomely original sound'n'vison takes shape in macabre ditties like 'Happy Birthday', 'The Friend Catcher' and especially 'The Hair Shirt', where Cave's grotesque vocals are doused in Rowland S. Howard's brimstone gtr.  After this debut, The Birthday Party left Australia for London, pilgrims in search of infernal post-punk clamor.  But instead of kindred extremists, they found the irony-clad poseurs of early '80s New Pop (ABC, Human League etc) with their synths, suits and string sections.  Doubly exiled, The Birthday boys soon gathered around them a cult of those disenchanted by the new regime of health and positivity.  Against this squeaky-clean backdrop, their marauding music shone like a murky beacon of obsession, sickness and debauchery.

 Abjection--the base materiality of fleshly existence-- figures vividly in Cave's lyrics for Prayers On Fire and Junkyard, as a source of both voluptuous allure and skin-scrawling revulsion.  On Prayers, Tracy Pew's scabrous bass is the obscenely throbbing heart of the Birthday Party's itchy, twitchy music of disequilibrium and malaise; he provides both motor and melody in the lust-stricken bacchanal "Zoo-Music Girl", the Artaud-meets-Screaming-Jay-Hawkins paroxysms of "A Dead Song" and the spasming swamp-funk of "King Ink".  Where Prayers is idiosyncratic and eclectic, Junkyard is more homogenous, closer to the live BP's dense frenzy (as heard on *It's Still Living* and *Drunk On The Pope's Blood*). Some tracks are a bit of a turgid slog. Still, 'Big Jesus Trash-Can" and "6 Inch Gold Blade" have a rollicking jazz-punk swing, and the album starts and ends with two absolute BP pinnacles: "She's Hit", where cadaverous guitars frame Cave's grisly gynocidal lyrics ("there is woman-pie in here"), and "Junkyard", whose downward-spiralling noise and opiate imagery ("garbage in honey's sack") seethe and roil like rock's own death throes. Amazingly, the Birthday Party staggered on through two more EP's.  Possibly their finest hour, The Bad Seed is a concentrated spurt of refined dementia, and wickedly witty to boot--from the "fingers down the throat of love" chorus of 'Fears Of Gun' to the Disney-on-bad-acid talking trees of 'Deep In The Woods'.  The patchier '*Mutiny* peaks with the Faulkner-esque psychodrama 'Swampland' and the verminously detail-infested soundscape of 'Mutiny In Heaven'.

After Mutiny, the Party broke up. Rowland S. Howard joined Crime and the City Solution, swathing surrogate-Cave figure Simon Bonney's boomy baritone and moody lyrics with decidedly Doors-y atmospherics; later Howard formed These Immortal Souls, whose ghost-town dereliction paved the way for the country-blues despondency of Mazzy Star.  Nick Cave assembled the Bad Seeds (whose core remains Einsturzende Neubauten's Blixa Bargeld on guitar and keyboardist Barry Adamson) for the splendid From Her To Eternity.  Framed in cinematic but still rough-hewn arrangements, Cave staked out some of the themes that would occupy the rest of his career: amorous murder (the title track, "Well Of Misery"), the Artist abandoned or misunderstood by his audience ("A Box For Black Paul", "Avalanche") and Elvis (a cover of "In The Ghetto").  The Firstborn Is Dead plunges deeper into Americana: the 'talking blues' Elvis-myth of "Tupelo", the murder ballad 'Say Goodbye To The Little Girl Tree', homages to Dylan and "Blind Lemon Jefferson", and so on. But Cave's hammy delivery and use of Old Testament lingo make this LP a bit hokey.  Still, the mock-ethnological sleevenotes are a hoot: "The Black Crow King" is the tale of "a king surrounded by followers who have learned to imitate him"--a sly dig at Cave's Goth cult.

1986's all-covers album Kicking Against The Pricks not only recharged Cave's aesthetic battery, it sets the terms of the remainder of his career. Subsequent albums merely juggle different ratios of the three styles on offer here: blues, C&W noir, and what Cave called "entertainment music, although some might call it corn".  A masterful feat of canon-formation and career-realignment, Kicking repositions Cave as showman not shaman. He convincingly brings out a latent dimension of tragic pathos in such '60s melodrama as Gene Pitney's "Something's Gotten Hold Of My Heart", Glen Campbell/Jimmy Webb's "By The Time I Get To Phoenix", and even The New Seekers' "The Carnival Is Over".  Later in '86, and clearly on a creative roll, Cave & Co came up with a terrific bunch of original songs in similarly epic vein for Your Funeral...  My Trial.  On the shimmering majesty of the title track, Cave rivals the ruined grandeur of the anti-hero persona patented by folk-blues singer Tim Rose (whose "Long Time Man" is covered here).  Only an acrid strain of misogny (the Biblical rape fantasy of "Hard On For Love", the inner sleeve's Madonna/Whore imagery) mars a masterpiece.

Tender Prey's 'The Mercy Seat' is Cave's last towering moment.  As in 'Long Time Man', he plays a wife-killing convict, his ruminations and no-regrets gusted along by a Velvets wall-of-noise. The rest of the LP is a grab-bag of mostly ill-conceived essays in genres like gospel, garage punk and '70s soul. Tender Prey sets the tone--bitty, dwindling-for what has so far proved to be Cave's artistic twilight.  The Good Son wanders into Neil Diamond terrain (the cover depicts Cave at the grand piano, surrounded by l'il red-headed girls). Some swear by the MOR balladry of "The Ship Song"; most find it a crock of schlock.  Henry's Dream is rawer, but a bore. Let Love In rallies musically (the Bad Seeds' arrangements are deft, humorous, almost poppy), but on the story-telling front it's Cave-by-rote, in-a-rut.  Back in '88, the singer declared: "lyrically, thematically, my work is still chained to the same bowl of vomit". But once upon at time, at least, that puke tasted fresh.


No comments: