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King Ink expanded...
on 11 June 2007
'The Complete Lyrics, 1978 - 2007' gathers together all of Nick Cave's lyrics to date, from 'Prayers on Fire' by The Birthday Party to this year's Grinderman set. The collection doesn't limit itself to the seperate albums, collecting the lyrics that made up b-sides and placing them in the same era as the albums they were companions to. This makes the book very enjoyable reading, tracing Cave's development and also making an ideal companion to the b-sides box-set from a year or so ago. There's also an enjoyable foreword from Will Self and a brief lecture ('The Secret Life of the Song') delivered by Cave himself.
The early Birthday Party stuff is fun, though is probably the weakest/most reductive stuff here - it really needs to be listened to very loudly as you imagine the ghost of Tracey Pew beating the **** out of his bass in heaven or in hell. Ironically, as The Birthday Party began to implode with the intense 'Bad Seed' and 'Mutiny' e.p.'s , Cave's lyrics became far more literate. It is here that the roots of Cave's sole novel to date, 'And the Ass Saw the Angel', are to be found - 'Swampland' imagining the anti-hero of that novel sinking in the quicksand, as he's pursued by bounty hunters (this also reminds you of a few novels by William Faulkner!). There is some beauty and poetry to be found in songs like 'Wild World' and 'Jennifer's Veil', e.g. "She drew the curtain on hr face/Ever since they came and burnt the old place down."
Cave began writing his novel during a stay in West-Berlin, the first Bad Seeds LP pouring out of him - 'From Her to Eternity' took the obssessive thing much further, while 'St Huck' span a Biblical yarn around Twain's figure, advancing the earlier approach found in the Southern Gothic Shakespeare of 'Hamlet (Pow, Pow, Pow).' The final track 'A Box for Black Paul' feels like a relative of 'And the Ass...', while much of 1985's 'The First Born is Dead' would nod to similar subject matter. The highlights there are the manic 'Tupelo', which imagines Elvis Christ, and 'Knockin' on Joe', a tale of prisoner's being forced into hard labour in mines.
Cave finally finished his novel, though somehow managed to produce three albums alongside it - 'Your Funeral, My Trial' (1986) contains some truly poetic moments, notably 'Sad Waters', Murder Ballad 'Your Funeral, My Trial', and 'The Carny' (a song that would feature prominently in 'Wings of Desire'). I was never that keen on 'Tender Prey', I could be wrong, but I think Cave developed problems at the time, and was also busy soundtracking/starring in 'Ghosts of the Civil Dead.' 'Up Jumped the Devil' is a twist on an old Robert Johnson lyric, while songs like 'Mercy' and 'Watching Alice' seemed a bit familiar. There were some pearls though, the intense 'City of Refuge' (which reads too much like a song, making me hum the song!) and 'The Mercy Seat.' The latter remains one of Cave's most well known songs, later covered by Johnny Cash, who it really seems to have been written for in the first place. A song about a condemned prisoner waiting on Death Row with a brilliant line pointing out the trade of Christ.
1990's 'The Good Son' showed Cave's ambitions advancing, notably with 'Foi Na Cruz', the sublime 'The Ship Song' and 'Lament', which seems to foreshadow the direction taken up on 'The Boatman's Call.' Again, I wasn't bowled over by the mid-90s trio 'Henry's Dream', 'Let Love In', and 'Murder Ballads' - some of the production was wrong, while there was the notion that Cave had descended into self-parody with 'Murder Ballads.' Reading the lyrics to those records, there are some chestnuts, especially 'Red Right Hand', 'Where the Wild Roses Grow', and the epic 'Papa, Won't Leave You Henry' (the 'Henry'-material was much better on the 'Live Seeds' LP).
'Murder Ballads' may have seemed like a return to songs like '6" Gold Blade' and 'Deep in the Woods', but it put a full-stop on a certain period of Cave. He seemed more confident and became far more literate, the deeply personal (some say too personal) material on 'The Boatman's Call' is key here. That record was based around his break-up with PJ Harvey, which is somewhat given away by song-titles like 'Black Hair' and 'West Country Girl.' I remember being bowled over by songs like 'Lime Tree Arbour', 'Brompton Oratory' and 'Into My Arms' - re-reading them in this book, they seem even more perfect.
Cave has maintained this standard over the three/four albums that followed - 'No More Shall We Part', 'Nocturama', 'Lyre of Orpheus'/'Abbatoir Blues'. 'No More...' offers poetry like 'Fifteen Feet of Pure White Snow', 'God is In The House', & 'Gates to the Garden.' 'Nocturama' was slightly grittier, though 'Dead Man In My Bed' is hugely effective, while 'Rock of Gibraltar' is more sublime, exact poetry. The material for the last two Bad Seeds albums was equally great, devotional stuff and in the case of 'Nature Boy', containing political allusions (to Vietnam on TV, though am sure the Iraq-war zeitgeist was in the air). This collection ends on Cave's latest project, Grinderman, a band formed by four Bad Seeds and a more literate take on the territory of the Birthday Party (I also think they're a bit like early Gallon Drunk, must be the organ!). The Grinderman songs remind you that Cave has a sense of humour and isn't the dour individual that folk often label him as (a bit like Leonard Cohen and Morrissey). Flicking back through this collection you come to a song like 'Release the Bats' and realise it's always been this way.
I just hope they teach this in schools...