Those of us who are ashamedly late to the world of Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds have plenty of reason to sing the praises of Mute Records. Aside from being home to the band for lo these many years, Mute Records has announced plans to reissue the entirety of Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds’ catalogue, thus giving us belated Bad Seed converts an opportunity to catch up and find out just why respected musicians tremble and quake in Nick Cave’s presence.
And tremble, ye shall. There’s a reason that the name Nick Cave evokes images of elegant mayhem and biblical apocalypse. You could probably pick up any one album, even his worst, and get an idea of what a force of nature Cave can be. Cave menacingly stalks each song, pounding out verse after verse of violent and eloquent prose like some fugitive poet of hell. There’s no sunny side to Nick Cave’s music, but that doesn’t mean Cave can’t be funny: his humor is just usually delivered with a stiff shot of malice.
So we could talk about how Cave’s brand of apocalyptic sermonizing makes these reissues all too relevant in our modern political climate, but honestly, the reissues could arrive at our planet’s height of happiness and we’d still welcome their pitch-black sentiments with open arms. And besides, Mute’s only releasing the first four albums for now, so there’s still plenty left needing release.
Nonetheless, it’s fascinating hearing Cave come out of his former Birthday Party with both fists swinging, particularly on his sophomore album with the Bad Seeds, The Firstborn Is Dead. Cave’s interest in American blues is the primary focus of The Firstborn Is Dead, so much so that it’s almost jarring to remember that Cave hails from England. This is an unmatchable album of turbulent Americana that happened to have sprang from the other side of the Atlantic.
And it doesn’t get much more turbulent than the opener. “Tupelo” begins and ends with an audible thunderstorm, which perfectly bookends the Sturm und Drang in between. Even for a song that tells the story of Elvis’ birth, or more specifically, the failed birth of Elvis’ still-born brother, Jesse, “Tupelo” is darker than dark, built around drums and bass that give new meaning to ominous, with Cave leading the band to an almost feverish climax. The aforementioned closing thunderstorm is practically a welcome respite.
“Tupelo,” amongst many other examples on The Firstborn Is Dead, makes abundantly clear that Cave is perfectly matched with his backing band. Perhaps the most ingenious element of The Firstborn Is Dead is how frequently the guitar is used as the rhythm instrument, while the drums, bass, and piano chaotically pound around it. Given how inseparable the guitar is from old American blues, and how loose the percussion could frequently be (sometimes reduced to a mere tapping foot), the arrangements on The Firstborn Is Dead are brilliantly bizarre and appropriate. See “Say Goodbye to the Little Girl Tree” or Cave and the Bad Seeds cover of Bob Dylan’s “Wanted Man” for other fantastic examples of this concept.
Of course, Cave and the Bad Seeds would keep southern gothic blues as a permanent fixture in their arsenal, but The Firstborn Is Dead is practically Cave’s love letter to the genre. Rather than embarrass himself and come across as some philistine invading an American genre, Cave and the Bad Seeds ended up suggesting artier and darker places an already dark genre could go.