Monday, January 29, 2007

Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds - 'Tender Prey'

Rating - 8/B

Tender Prey was Nick Cave's 5th album with The Bad Seeds, his solo-career backing band, the last of his 1980s albums - he took a break to write his (rather good) novel, And The Ass Saw The Angel soon after - and the last album written and recorded while living in Berlin. It showcases an artist who has moved consistently in a more diverse direction since the punkish caterwauling of his first band, The Birthday Party, and the equally disturbing but slower and more stripped-down sounds of his earliest work with The Bad Seeds. The accesible elements - real melodies, discernable song structures and reasonably palatable singing - are well matched with a broad palette of sounds that draws from blues, folk and avant-garde influences to create a shifting, but instantly recognisable backdrop for Cave's dark tales of love, lust, murder and religion. I think it presents Cave as a consolidated and fully-formed entity - elements of his past work are combined in a manner that would more or less represent the direction in which he moved for the next decade or so. More importantly, it's a pretty strong album with no really weak or unapproachable material on it.

The centerpiece, and opener, of this whole experience is of course The Mercy Seat. A dark, haunting narrative spat out in the persona of a convicted murdered on death row, awaiting his turn in the electric chair's 'mercy seat', it bristles with fury and desperation, Biblical imagery, and evokes defiance and resignation in equal measure. Musically, the song rides on a throbbing, dynamic Bad Seeds backing, complete with German noise-master Blixa Bargeld conjuring an unholy tempest on guitar, augmented with dramatic strings. The song is really long, but its sprawling length is kept taut with an unbroken intensity of delivery, which just the right amount of counter-weighing melody and regret, and it never seems over-extended. It's a strong, compelling lyrical statement and the music matches the mood perfectly. Perhaps no one other than Nick Cave could conceive of or pull off a song like this, and it deserves its place as a perennial feature on his live setlists.

The other material rarely reaches The Mercy Seat's apocalyptic heights, but it's not just filler, either. Deanna sounds vaguely like a doo-wop or early garage rock song, but played with a psychotic verve than no actual 50s or early 60s artists were allowed to portray on record. The lyrics are about the protagonist imploring his lover to join him in killing spree in a fast car - classic Nick Cave stuff. It's also bloody catchy. Sugar Sugar Sugar works on similar lines musically, but is less concise.

Up Jumped The Devil is an archetypal hard-luck story that begins with the narrator's mother dying in the course of a messy and bloody delivery, and ends at the gallows pole, with that mean old devil watching in delight all along the way. A chilling song, shot through with black humour and built on a lurching, brooding musical base that turns a rather melodious and almost pretty piano motif to dark purpose. The group vocals on the choruses add to the folk-gone-psycho feel. It's all so melodic and genuinely hooky under the darkness and doom, which is the hallmark of the best Cave material, if you ask me. City Of Refuge builds a vaguely gospel/bluesy feel into another frantic, desperate hard-luck tale on similar lines, though equally compelling in its own right. Sunday's Slave again revolves around a pulsing rhythm and decidedly melodic piano lines while Cave weaves a dark fable based around days of the week and what sounds to me like a rather negative attitude towards the priestly class. I could be wrong of course - Cave's religious views are especially opaque to me. He sure likes his Biblical imagery though.

Among the slower songs, Watching Alice is an especially lovely ballad-like song, although the lyrics confound you here - they seem to be about an especially mournful voyeur. Or is it a metaphor for the alienation and isolation within a once-close relationship? Either way, it's haunting. Mercy weaves togeher arresting but somewhat opaque lyrical images, a vaguely Eastern touch and desprate pleas for mercy. It's a subjective thing, but it works less well for me than the almost Leonard Cohen-ish (though, always, less urbane and more morbid) Slowly Goes The Night. Maybe it's only because the latter song has xylophone on it to make it more special, or because the choruses on the former just feel too monotonous and whiney to me. Genralised pleas for mercy just don't fit Cave's unique blend of piss-and-vinegar and doomed romanticism at this moment.

New Morning seems to end the album on a positive note, and I'm not sure whether it's intended as a genuine respite from the darkness elsewhere (although this song is more of a light-after-the-terrible-night message than an unalloyed ode to joy and hope) or some sort of ironic gesture. Anyway it serves as a lightening factor and a good way to end the album, unless you have the Video Mix of The Mercy Seat on your version, which is an even better way to end the album.

The Eiderdown-Stuffing Bottomline: Folk, blues, and other rootsy influences combine with apocalyptic stomp and swagger and Cave's growing melodicity. Everything's dark and doom-laden, although musical variety, touches of black humour and an ambiguous gesture of hope keep things diverse. Easily one of the peaks of Cave's first decade as a solo artist.

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