It is no exaggeration for me to tell you I’ve been waiting for this album for over twenty years. I went to see a Nick Cave show at the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall years ago – I can’t remember exactly when now but it was some time in the late ’90’s. He had none of the Bad Seeds with him, it was just him on stage with his piano, and the odd cameo from a cellist or violinist. He performed most of the album The Boatman’s Call as well as a pretty comprehensive set from his back catalogue, and it was amazing. It was instantly in my top two concerts of all time.
So astounded was I by how well his songs stand up when stripped back that way, I searched and searched for anything he’d recorded acoustically, which at that time was very little. In the end, I found an obscure little CD he put out which actually contains two lectures he gave on the art of songwriting – The Secret Life of the Love Song / The Flesh Made Word. Embedded within one of these lectures are five piano only versions of some of his songs: ‘West Country Girl’, ‘People Ain’t No Good’, ‘Sad Waters’, ‘Love Letter’ and ‘Far From Me’. The last three, in particular, are amazing. The version of ‘Love Letter’ he put out on a studio album is not well loved, it is a bit overproduced and very saccharine, but the version of it on that CD is capable of, and often does reduce me to tears. Little did I know when I first heard it that reducing me to tears was something Cave was going to do quite a few times in the future, especially with the relatively recent releases of Skeleton Key and Ghosteen – albums which deal with the very public death of his teenage son.
Anyway, I digress slightly, but this is just to say I have longed for this record ever since back then. And here it finally is. I missed the broadcast of the concert, but there was no way I was going to miss the album. I’ve listened to it twice already on its release date and, no real surprise I guess, I love it.
In some ways it’s hard to know where to start with a review. It has some of the same songs he performed all those years ago on it, and songs you would expect from The Boatman’s Call, with other classics such as ‘Sad Waters’, ‘The Mercy Seat’, ‘The Ship Song’. And they are all tremendous. But I’ll probably focus a little on some of his more recent material. Take ‘Girl in Amber’ from Skeleton Tree. The studio version of this has an ambience to it which I guess I tend to catagorise as part of Cave’s post-rock sound. Here it is more earthy sounding, infinitely more grounded, and completely hypnotic.
Or take ‘Jubilee Street’, originally from the 2013 album Push the Sky Away. Originally a low key, mid tempo and slightly creepy guitar led track, here it sounds utterly timeless. Not as though it could have been written at any point in the past fifty years but more like it comes from somewhere else entirely, somewhere outside of the timeline we are in. It seems somehow life affirming and apocalyptic at precisely the same time. In a way though, this is exactly what I love about Nick Cave. He does something that nobody else, as far as I’m concerned, really does. He bridges punk and goth and folk music, and he taps into some sort of primordial human psychology as he does so. His lyrics are littered with biblical references, they are often dark, sometimes murderous and psychotic, sometimes drenched in raw grief. He somehow strikes at this deep seated, archetypal core of what it is to be human, and conflicted, and in pain. It’s just incredible, and I struggle sometimes to articulate it properly.
I was going to share and talk a bit about ‘Higgs Boson Blues’, also originally from Skeleton Tree, but suffice to say it’s superb, as is pretty much everything on this record. Instead, I think I’ll share ‘Sad Waters’ just because it is an absolutely beautiful song and one of my very favourites of his. I am so happy it got included in the set. And I’m not even going to over analyse it, just close your eyes and listen to it. It gives me goose bumps every time I hear it.
What else can I say really? I love this record. Has it been worth the wait? Absolutely. I know Cave isn’t for everyone; I know his music can be hard work, especially when it’s at its most harrowing. I also know he’s a bit hard to categorise at times: post-punk; gothic folk punk; post rock; just a bit odd? But that’s part of the allure for me. I freely admit I’m a bit of a muso, I don’t just like music, I actively seek out what I consider to be important music – the stuff that breaks ground, that influences and defines, the stuff that I consider to be significant pop culture artefacts. It sounds a bit pretentious, I know, it is a bit pretentious, but that’s just how I see it. Nick Cave sits in the very top bracket, with Bowie, The Beatles, The Smiths, Sex Pistols, Nirvana. He may never make quite the same cultural splash as those other artists, but his songs are as important, as complex, and as resonant as anyone’s. Hearing them stripped back like this affirms their greatness. Serious music for serious music lovers. The kind that demands your full attention, but rewards you for it in ways you couldn’t anticipate.
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