The third installment of Mute’s Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds reissue series covers their four albums from 1994 to 2001. As with the rest of this series, each release comes as a double CD – the first disc has the remastered album, and the second disc contains the album in DVD audio, music videos (don’t miss the creepy “Stagger Lee” or the beautifully shot “Fifteen Feet Of Pure White Snow”), and the behind-the-scenes series “Do You Love Me Like I Love You” where interviews with fans, band-members, collaborators and fellow musicians provide insight into each album.
The earliest album in the series, Let Love In, came out in 1994 when fringe acts like Cave were suddenly looked at as a potentially marketable commodity. To give you an idea of the musical landscape at the time of release, The Melvins were on a major label, Kurt Cobain had killed himself two weeks earlier, and the Lollapalooza tour (which featured Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds) was still a huge cultural event. While Let Love In was hardly a blatant attempt to court a larger audience, it was the band’s most professional sounding album to date, making it a great entry point for anyone unfamiliar with Cave’s body of work. The opening song, “Do You Love Me”, quickly establishes the dramatic mood of the album, which shows the breadth of the band’s repertoire, including garage rock (“Thirsty Dog” and “Jangling Jack”), ballads about death (“Nobody’s Baby Now” and “Lay Me Low”) and two of their best known songs from the ’90s, “Red Right Hand” and “Loverman”. Let Love In also marks Warren Ellis’ debut on a Nick Cave record, adding his trademark violin to the Leonard Cohen-esque “Ain’t Gonna Rain Anymore” and “Do You Love Me (Part 2)”. Highlights among the five bonus tracks include the string-heavy crooner “Cassiel’s Song” and “Where The Action Is”, which would eventually mutate into “Red Right Hand”.
Released in 1995, Murder Ballads takes the dark and creepy aspects of Let Love In to their obvious conclusion, with ten songs centered around lyrical themes of death and murder. Once again, it’s important to look at the musical and cultural landscape of the time to understand where the album comes from, and in 1995 that landscape was dominated by violent words and images. Cinema was getting a new coat of blood-colored paint from Quentin Tarantino, Nine Inch Nails and Marylin Manson were bringing dark industrial music to the masses and rap was ruled by the violent likes of The Wu Tang Clan (Nick Cave was apparently a big fan of Clan member The GZA!) and Onyx on the East Coast, and Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg (or Snoop Doggy Dogg as he was known at the time) on the West Coast. Surprisingly, it’s that new strain of gangster rap, with its fantastic tales of violence and bloodshed, that’s the biggest influence on Murder Ballads. Although Nick Cave would, on the surface, seem to be at odds with the genre, on Murder Ballads he was “out-violents” just about everybody. In fact, the lyrics contain no less than sixty four murders – or 6.4 per song. Not bad for an album featuring a duet with Kylie Minogue! In addition to Minogue’s unlikely vocal turn on “Where The Wild Roses Grow”, there are guest spots from PJ Harvey (“Henry Lee”) and Shane McGowan along with a large cast of singers on the album-ending cover of Bob Dylan’s “Death Is Not The End” (originally found on 1988’s Down In The Groove, considered by many to be Dylan’s worst). If rampant-yet-artful profanity is your thing, then you need to hear his cover of “Stagger Lee”, where Cave re-imagines the old folk standard into an almost rap-like vision of violence and male bravado. It’s easily the album’s most visceral cut. The bonus tracks are as good as anything on the album – “The Ballad Of Robert Moore and Betty Coltrane” recalls the rush of pre-accident Dylan, “The Willow Garden” is another ballad dominated by Warren Ellis’ violin sound, “King King Kitchee Kitchee Ki-Mi-O” is set to a Bo Diddley beat, and “Knoxville Girl” is a simple but affecting cover of a traditional folk song.
After taking his twisted visions of violence and depravity to their logical extreme on Murder Ballads, it was time for Nick Cave to do something different. There is a pair of photos on the inside cover of The Boatman’s Call which speak volumes on what that different thing would be. The first is a shot of Cave, alone, playing the piano with a statue of Jesus on top. The second is the rest of The Bad Seeds sitting in a theater with their hands folded. Released in 1997, The Boatman’s Call lived up to those photos – a largely piano-based album featuring a weary and sombre Cave waxing poetic on spiritual and romantic issues, while the rest of The Bad Seeds add only the sparsest backing. The album features two of Cave’s best ballads (“Into My Arms” and “(Are You) The One That I’ve Been Waiting For?”) but the overall tone is a bit dreary and the back half tends to drag. Worn down from over a decade of drug use and failed romances, Cave’s singing feels a bit tired and, while he’s tackled topics of religion before, here his sermons lack the usual fire and brimstone, veering too heavily towards reverence. If you’re a seasoned Cave listener, you’ll appreciate the album as part of his larger body of work. However, if you’re new to Cave, The Boatman’s Call is perhaps his least typical album and it plays more like an artistic sidebar.
No More Shall We Part was released in 2001, a lengthy four years after The Boatman’s Call. During that time Nick Cave kicked his addiction to drugs and got married, which explains why he sounds so reinvigorated. You can almost hear his reemergence from the depths of emotional despondence played out on “Fifteen Feet Of pure White Snow” where Cave explains “I need some healing/I’ve been paralyzed/By a lack of feeling”. The piano-led songwriting of The Boatman’s Call still dominates the tone of the music, which is often contemplative and down beat. However, The Bad Seeds have a greater presence on No More Shall We Part, giving the songs a richly textured sound which suits them better. They also benefit from guest vocalists Kate and Anna McGarrigle, who add tasteful backing vocals to many of the songs. One of those songs, a rumination on small-town life called “God Is In The House”, is perhaps the most accomplished lyrical and vocal performance of Nick Cave’s career. The album is also important as it marks the beginning of Warren Ellis’ rise to prominence within the band, as his sweeping violin melodies are at the forefront of many of the songs. Although No More Shall We Part was not the rock-heavy stylistic endpoint The Bad Seeds would reach toward the end of the 2000’s on Dig Lazarus Dig, it contains their first steps in that direction, and showed that they were more than ready to make important music in the new millennium.