A self-exorcism, a taming of the past.
Nick Cave has been especially visible the last few years, making waves for his writerly accomplishments, his work scoring television and film and two oneiric documentaries: 20,000 Days on Earth, on his creative process, and One More Time with Feeling, on the recording of Skeleton Tree, which occurred in the wake of the passing of his teenage son. All of this suggests a certain restlessness, one that we as listeners might be tempted to analyze. With someone as doggedly self-scrutinizing as Cave, however, the music itself does much of the work for us; however obscurely, Cave tends to let us know how he’s doing. The latest missive from Planet Cave is Lovely Creatures, a 45-song best-of covering 30 years of music.
Best-of compilations can be challenging listens; the individual excellence of each song tends to rob the whole of cohesion. Too often they up sounding, as Toynbee said of history, “like one damn thing after another.” Here, thankfully, the listener will feel like she is truly witnessing a band in transformation rather than a static sequence of snapshots.
Unsurprisingly, the overall quality of the music is very high. Growing out of Cave and Mick Harvey’s brilliant, savage earlier band. the Birthday Party, the Bad Seeds initially combined punk, industrial, goth, folk, blues, Old Testament doom and Weimar decadence, mixing the sacred and the profane at each turn. Cave, one of the most charismatic frontmen of the past few decades, has often resembled a cross between a vampire and a Southern preacher, gifted with a voice sounding something like Elvis on a steady diet of Kurt Weill.
In a way, the overall trajectory of the band has been to go full circle, starting with difficult, violent and unforgiving material before “maturing” into more ballad-oriented, melancholic ruminations before returning, in their old age, to the simple pleasures of rocking out.
The first disc, it must be said, is a stunner. It starts off in style with the classic “From Her to Eternity,” which film fans will remember from Wenders’s Wings of Desire, and includes swampy numbers like “Tupelo” and “Up Jumped the Devil,” a smacked-out cover of “In the Ghetto,” unrelenting epics like “The Carny” and “The Mercy Seat,” poppier numbers like “Sad Waters” and “Deanna” and an inspired cover of John Lee Hooker’s “I’m Gonna Kill That Woman.”
It also features “The Weeping Song,” a duet with Seed fellow (and legend in his own right) Blixa Bargeld, along with “The Ship Song,” a song so beautiful it could serve as Cave’s epitaph. Despite all these classics, however, the surprising gem here is b-side “Scum.” It is vulgar and arresting, a dirty delight— though its lyrics lack the cerebral literariness Cave is known for, it does showcase the gory, visceral side of the band that made them so sonically captivating.
The second disc covers the band’s commercial glory days. Concert favorites “Loverman,” “Red Right Hand,” and “Stagger Lee” are all here, but the revelations are the softer numbers such as “Nobody’s Baby Now,” “People Ain’t No Good,” and “Come into my Sleep,” another B-side.
These are more conventional, but show off Cave’s subtler talents, whereas the others rely on his trademark braggadocio. The chamber quality of these quieter songs presage the mood of No More Shall We Part and Nocturama, both of which get two songs each at the end of this double disc (oddly, “Oh My Lord” is omitted). This second disc might well be dubbed “the transition years”—it is hard not to hear personal turmoil unfolding in real time as the music morphs from swagger to sorrow.
Finally, the third disc culls from just three albums, all rather sprawling affairs from the band’s “comeback”—Abattoir Blues / The Lyre of Orpheus, Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! andPush the Sky Away, the first disc sans Harvey.
What made Abattoir / Lyre so great was how it encompassed Cave’s range from rollicking numbers to moodier material. Here we have the punk-gospel stomp of “Hiding All Away,” the swinging “There She Goes, My Beautiful World” and the Morrissey-esque “Nature Boy,” all of which feature riotous female vocals backing up Cave’s assured, arch sneer. Of the softer songs, the gloomy “O Children” has aged the best, though “Breathless” and “Babe, You Turn Me On” bear a welcome sincerity. The only complaint here is the absence of “Messiah Ward,” perhaps the strongest song from that double album, musically and lyrically.
With Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!, we hear the influence of Cave’s side project, Grinderman, which began with his decision to write on guitar rather than piano. Their sound here, while entertaining, leads them to sound a bit derivative—the ghosts of Cohen, Reed and Zevon are all alive and well here. The moody, wandering “Night of the Lotus Eaters” is the most intriguing cut.
The songs from Push the Sky Away mark yet another change of pace. The arrangements take on a stripped-down, keyboard-driven sound, and the songs tend to be quite long and funereal in register. The centerpieces are “Jubilee Street” and “Higgs Boson Blues,” which in some ways represent the best and worst of recent Cave songwriting—both are tense, slow-burning tunes with Cave at his most verbose. Both rely on the band to whip Cave into messianic frenzy, but only “Jubilee Street” comes close to succeeding, with “Higgs Boson Blues” never really taking flight. The disc ends with the synthy title track, its message of resistance adumbrated by mournful resignation.
This is not to say that the compilation is a document of a band running out of steam. For most bands, a best-of is the equivalent of declaring surrender, of having little else to offer but a repackaging of their own career. For Cave, the act seems like more of a self-exorcism, a taming of the past. He has been wrestling with the angel for nearly 40 years now—luckily for us, his dark night, at least for now, shows no sign of ending.