Nick Cave creates experiences, not songs. A visceral growl seethes over bluesy, stomping tracks that always feel as if they are on the verge of becoming unhinged into abysmal chaos. Few people since Jim Morrison have conveyed such a raw, sinister emotion through their voice, yet this Australian burst on to the scene in the mid-70s and succeeded in getting under the skin of his audience like few others could. The first musical vehicle for Cave was the genre-defying band Birthday Party, which thrashed its way into the dark recessions of the minds of any who dared to listen. Despite the group’s limited success before its dissolution, the band has become a cult classic of sorts over the years due to its garage-like vivacity and ominous tone. He then went on to form the Bad Seeds in 1983, which has released a total of fourteen albums, and in 2006 he started a side project called Grinderman, which has two albums to its name (and one remix LP). As if this wasn’t enough, Cave has also composed soundtracks for such prominent movies as The Proposition, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and The Road.
Throughout all of these recordings, in both music and lyrics, Cave opts to delve into the far-reaching corners of the human subconscious. Many times he uses extreme characters, such as foul-tempered and foul-mouthed “Stagger Lee” or extreme situations (“Mickey Mouse and the Goodbye Man”) in order to portray and reveal the basic human instincts and the severe emotional response to tragedy, religion and love. However, what separates him lyrically from the likes of, say, Springsteen, who explores similar subject matter, is Cave’s willingness to fully embrace and explore the dark side of human nature and emotionality. Rarely do his struggling characters or narrators receive a happy ending that comforts the listener. Instead, the audience is left to ponder and make sense of what they have just heard and ultimately come to their own conclusions. A challenging listen, yes, but one that proves far more rewarding than the generic pop songs with contrived emotion and predictable endings.
With so much material, it would be understandable to question whether Nick Cave has spread himself thin over the years. Yet unlike a slew of other prolific artists, the quality of his work has never diminished during his career, and neither has his mass appeal. In order to stay a relevant artist for multiple decades and weather the storm of passing musical trends and aging, Cave has adapted his style throughout the years and experimented with different sounds and song structures to keep the audience constantly on its toes. Yet at the same time, he has always kept the inherent components of his songwriting, sound and voice that continually struck a chord with people in the thirty-plus years of his life as a musician. His latest album release, Grinderman 2, finds him channeling the menacing snarl and edge of his early Birthday Party days and combining it with his developed, refined songwriting craft. In fact, he seems to have gained a new energy and popularity in his middle age, as his last Bad Seeds’ record, Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!, accumulated substantial critical acclaim and was considered one of the best albums of 2008. Like the Rolling Stones, Nick Cave has continued to adapt his style from album to album without completely abandoning or changing his basic sound. Take notes, young artists.