Nick Cave is one of those artists I’ve always found it easier to admire than to love. He’s a gifted songwriter, a phenomenal lyricist and a mesmerizing live performer, but despite all these things I’ve never counted myself as a great fan. I think my reservations have something to do with the swampy, bluesy nature of much of his music, a style I’ve never really got along with, as well as the general air of louche ribaldry about the man. Having been a great admirer of Cave’s first novel, And the Ass Saw the Angel, I was hugely disappointed by the 2009 follow-up, The Death of Bunny Munro, which struck me as an infantile piece of work; and I felt the same about the Grinderman project which has occupied much of Cave’s time in the past few years.
Although I can certainly appreciate the unhinged power of Cave in full-on sulphurous preacher mode, I like him most when he’s being a Mature Artist, sitting at the piano and delivering a carefully considered and beautifully constructed ballad. There were plenty of those on The Good Son, the first Cave album I ever heard and one that remains a favourite; and even more of them on the pitch-perfect The Boatman’s Call, to this day Cave’s crowning achievement. Later records such as Nocturama and Dig, Lazarus, Dig, however, contained their fair share of clunkers alongside a few undoubted classics.
However uneven Cave’s recorded legacy might be, he can always be relied upon to put on an excellent live show, and I’ve usually made the effort to catch him when he’s played near me. I remember a fine concert at Tate Britain in London, billed as a solo show but actually featuring one or two of the Bad Seeds as well. I may also have seen a full Bad Seeds show or two in London, my memory fails me. (Like many residents of Brighton, I used to see him around town as well; once on the train up to London with his son, once – unsurprisingly – at a Dirty Three show.) Following my move to Vienna, there was another quasi-solo show in the magnificent setting of the Konzerthaus in 2006.
2006, you say? Gosh. Seven full years after I’d last seen Cave, he showed up in a sold-out Gasometer, this time bringing the Bad Seeds with him. And what a formidable group they are, giving flesh, bone and blood to the raging drama of Cave’s songs. Inevitably it’s the early material that takes the breath away, songs like “Tupelo”, “Red Right Hand” and “The Mercy Seat”: blistering, hellish psychodramas that bring Cave to places no other performer has ever visited, stalking the wide stage like a feral beast and declaiming his texts with savage fury. I was transfixed too by the piano section, with “Sad Waters” and “Into My Arms” demonstrating Cave’s unerring ability to articulate vast universes of longing and resignation in song.
In comparison the Push The Sky Away stuff sounded mannered and inert to me, although it’s an invidious comparison to make when this later material still stands head and shoulders above pretty much everything else being done in the name of rock music in 2013. But that’s the curse and the burden of an artist like Nick Cave, forever fated to have his present ventures judged alongside the legendary triumphs of his past.