By the time Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds got around to recording Kicking Against the Pricks, their inimitable brand of Goth-by-way-of-fire-and-brimstone-blues had been well established by their previous albums (1984’s From Her to Eternity, and 1985’s The Firstborn Is Dead). So the prospect of an all-covers album coming from Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds is not as scary a concept as all-covers albums usually are. To put it simplistically, in order to cover a song successfully, you must make the song your own. Not to suggest Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds are limited, but it’s difficult to imagine them sounding like anything other than Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds. Therefore, any song they choose to cover is going to sound like their own. They could probably turn “Rockin’ Robin” into a pounding biblical nightmare.
So if you suspected that Kicking Against the Pricks, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds 1986 all-covers album, sounded like an album of Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds’ originals, you’d be right. What’s more, you should be happy to be right. This means that we get one of the very few Jimi Hendrix covers on record (“Hey Joe”) that isn’t bogged down in masturbatory guitar solos that threaten to permanently ruin the original. Shit, I’m not a hundred percent certain that there’s even a guitar in Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds’ version of it. The closest thing on the track that sounds like a guitar could just as easily be a violin being tortured.
Kicking Against the Pricks makes it abundantly clear that Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds have (or at least, had) a restricted range of moods from which to choose, but this is what makes their records so fascinating. No band in history has such a firm grasp on the idea of building tension and dread. Every song, even the slower, more melodic numbers, seem to be barely containing a powerful violence mounting beneath the surface. When Cave intones “I’m gonna kill that woman” (on John Lee Hooker’s “I’m Gonna Kill That Woman,” appropriately enough), you really believe it, and if you don’t believe it, that’s probably because you think he already did it. But that’s an easy one. Songs about jilted lovers threatening revenge are bound to sound creepy. How about Danny Dill and Marijohn Wilkin’s “Long Black Veil?” A song about a man falsely accused of murder yet refuses to provide his alibi because he was sleeping with his best friend’s wife at the time should sound sad and remorseful. It’s a song about honor and bizarre karmic justice, yet since everything sounds demented coming out of Cave, suddenly the narrator seems unreliable.
What makes Kicking Against the Pricks such a successful endeavor for the Bad Seeds is their ability to harness everything potent about the songs they are covering and add new and twisted shades to it. What’s more the band proves to be surprisingly versatile, equally adept at folding harmony-filled traditionals (“Jesus Met the Woman at the Well”) into their universe as they are tackling their obvious influences (The Velvet Underground’s “All Tomorrow’s Parties”). Kicking Against the Pricks is the sound of a band aware of their increasing potency and lucratively testing the limits of that power.