Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds Review

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If you’ve read my blog and are aware of my predilection for poetry and dark fiction, then it should come as no surprise that I’m a big fan of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.  Stemming out from my usual literature reviews, I thought it might be interesting to review a concert.

Reviewing a concert is unlike reviewing a book, show, album, etc.  With fixed media, there’s the opportunity for dissection and analysis under repeated consumption.  Albums, for instance, have a way of opening up under repeated listens.  A book or television show might reveal nuances in the background or thematic ties that are more fully revealed and appreciated on second or third experiences. 

Live experiences, however, are by their nature ephemeral.  What is there to say or dig apart other than the experience (physical, emotional, intellectual, etc.) at the time?  That’s not to say that a concert or play exists in a vacuum, but rather that its existence in the present moment is its defining characteristic. 

What did I think of that moment (specifically, 3/29/13 from around 9:00 pm until I slipped out during the encore around 11:00 pm)?  Well, maybe I myself was too weighted down to properly experience it.  Or perhaps it wasn’t that good.  Most likely, it was a mix of the two.

Why is that?  Well, let’s talk.

Time, and Time (Again)

It’s obvious that Nick Cave really likes his new songs.  In a pre-release clip on the recording of the album, Cave waxed philosophical about how if albums are like children, then “Push the Sky Away” is “the ghost baby in the incubator.”  That’s all fine and good, but I don’t really have any desire to quietly watch a premie labor for breath for 30 minutes.

The band apparently lived together in a residential studio (i.e. big fancy house with recording equipment everywhere) while they recorded it.  And it sounds like it.  The songs are a bit sleepy, and bit repetitive.  It sounds exactly like music 50-something-year-old men would make at a month-long sleepover.  Clearly I don’t know the dynamics or workings of the band, but if what’s on the wax is any indication, nobody came in fired up and ready to create something new; nobody had other places to be so wanted to cut this record and get on; nobody had the ability to go home angry, so nobody said “This doesn’t work.  What if we add a melody?  And Nick, some of those lyrics have got to go.” 

In case I’ve been unclear, I’m not a fan of the new songs.  I think that the repetitive structures misapply the strengths of the band’s earliest records (listen to how repetitive, yet infinitely more dynamic and compelling, the driving forces behind early songs like “Cabin Fever” or “Saint Huck” are).  “Push the Sky Away,” however, strips the dynamic sounds, instrumentation shifts, and tempo changes out, leaving the music to sort of flutter like torn skin around an open wound.  This leaves them feeling mostly limp and dragging.

At his best, Cave’s music and lyrics are appropriately timeless.  Of the ones he played at the concert, for example, I think you would be hard-placed to put a definite era to “The Ship Song,” “Deanna,” “Red Right Hand,” or “Papa Won’t Leave You, Henry.”  These lyrics and musicality of these songs are phantasmagorical and anachronistic (the organ breakdown and swoosh in RRH, the jangly guitars and swamp drifter grit of “Papa,” the Cadillac obsession of “Deanna”) in a way that isn’t dated or locked in a specific place and time. 

At his least appealing, Cave seems like an outsider trying too hard to be contemporary.  For example, the Cave of “Abbatoir Blues” who “woke up with a frappuccino in [his] hand” sounds like my dad wondering why we can’t just have regular coffee anymore.  “Bring it On,” which ranks high up there in the “least-Bad Seeds-y Bad Seeds” songs ever, at least had the good sense to realize it was a piece of 90s schlock (at least if the video can be believed).

Where does that leave him on the new songs?  Preening in the mirror, singing about Hannah Montana on “Higgs Boson Blues.”  Speak-singing along about a dream he had “After Writing Jubilee Street.” Awkwardly telling us that “We No Who U R” (who is this we?  Nick Cave and my 15 year old cousin on a Nokia candybar-style telephone that was out of style even before autocorrect was invented?)

The only one of the new songs that I was pleased to hear live was “Jubilee Street,” which I didn’t care much for on the album but which received a significant shot in the arm being performed live.  The energy in the final transformative moments was enough to put a gloss on a song that I hadn’t otherwise enjoyed. 

As I said, I snuck out during the encore when the band started playing “Push the Sky Away.”

It’s Not Us, It’s Them

The above said, I will admit that I can’t fault Cave for wanting to open with 5 of his new songs in a row.  As I said, I gained much more appreciation for “Jubilee Street,” and at least it was interesting to see the Harlem Voices children sing along. Besides, it makes sense that these songs are where his mind is now.  As much as the audience might want to hear something familiar, the Seeds want us to hear these – the new and fresh ones.

I should point out that this is the second time I’ve seen Nick Cave.  The first time was in 2009, touring in support of “Dig, Lazarus!! Dig!”  I think that album is much more engaging, not the least reason of which is because it’s simply louder and faster.  Because there’s simply *more* going on, I found the “opening 5 – new album” tact a lot more interesting and the musical shifts in those songs really showed off how tight the Bad Seeds can be.  It’s hard to showcase that musicianship when the musical theme to the new album is “Everybody else be quiet and let Warren Ellis drone on until Nick’s done talking about mermaids.”

So after opening with 5 or 6 or 100 of the new songs, the band began to play some of their older hits.  It was an odd crowd, in the fact that almost every song was a hit, but almost none of them for the same people.  Some old heads thrashed to “From Her to Eternity” (which is a driving, repetitive riff done right – mainly because it has tempo changes and instrumental breaks that the new ones lack) and “Jack the Ripper” (ditto) [Disclosure: those were my two favorites of the night].  Others looked puzzled, but then lit up for the piano “Love Letter/People Ain’t No Good” medley.  Still another group seemed to bug out for “Deanna,” “Stagger Lee” and “The Mercy Seat.”  It’s interesting to think about how many people there would self-identify as “Nick Cave fans” and yet probably have completely opposite tastes.

It’s to the man’s credit that he contains multitudes.

Out of all the old chestnuts, however, the only ones that I really enjoyed were “From Her to Eternity,” “Jack the Ripper” (both of which are just jangly, screamy, bugnuts kinds of awesome), “Papa Won’t Leave You, Henry” (which is essentially like Wiseblood or another Flannery O’Connor story that gets strangled with a guitar and then beat to death), and “People Ain’t No Good.”  Why the last one?  Because it doesn’t one he plays every goddam day.

As I said, I understand that the Bad Seeds want to play their newer songs.  They’re fresher to the band, it might sell some new albums, there’s probably more of an immediate personal stake in winning over new converts.  Unfortunately, it really comes across like the whole band just could not give less of a damn about playing the hits.

I have no complaints about the musicianship of the band.  In fact, I think that they are impeccable musicians and they play like a well-oiled machine.  Of course, they’d sort of have to be since the repertoire for any given tour is incredibly narrow.

If you look at the setlists for this tour, from February through March, you’ll see that there’s about 25 songs that get played.  You’ll see the chunks in which they get played together.  You’ll see that there are a few floaters out there so that a crowd thinks it’s getting a special treat (for us it was “People Ain’t No Good”).  But by and large and it’s the exact same thing.  What’s even worse, is that if you swap out “Dig, Lazarus!! Dig!” songs for the “Push Away the Sky” songs, this is almost the exact same set list repertoire from the 2009 tour.  Yep, every song I heard in 2009 is on the setlist here.  Unfortunately, in 2009 I had to listen to “God is in the House” during the piano break.

So of course the Bad Seeds are tight.  They only play like 25 songs and (most of them) have been playing them since 1990.  There are no surprises (well there’s one, but I’ll get to that in a minute).

When the band takes a break and Nick sits down at the piano, why is it always “God is in the House” or “Love Letter”?  I would shoot my friend Michele if Cave to play something lik “Watching Alice” (which is mostly piano) or a stripped down “Ship Song.”  Seeing a band live, at it’s best, offers the moments of experimentation, rare gems, or re-constructions.  He wouldn’t even have to practice with the rest of the band!

But, unfortunately, there aren’t really any surprises.  “Jack the Ripper” was probably the deepest cut, but it’s in the nightly rotation for this tour.  C’mon Nick Cave, make us feel special!

Kicking Against the Hits

While I could think of worse things to see than a night of expertly played Bad Seeds songs, even if those tracks are a bit stale, it’s clear that the band has little interest in letting us savor the moments.  Bad Seeds standards like “Deanna” and “The Mercy Seat” are raced through at a blistering pace.  One review called them “poppier and punkier” than normal, but I disagree.  It sounds perfunctory and impatient.

Moreover, there are some outright baffling choices in the set.  The most head-scratchingly incognizable is the choice to keep “The Weeping Song” in nightly rotation.  First, if this song known and/or well-regarded, it’s because it was a duet between Cave and Blixa Bargeld back in the heady 90s.  So once Blixa packed it up and went back to banging on pipes with Einsturzende Neubauten, why on earth does Cave still insist on playing it?  Actually, that’s not the problem.  The real problem is that he insists on singing both parts (as opposed to having a backer fill in)? As a result he keeps stepping on his own lines and getting confused as to whether he’s singing the father’s lines or the son’s lines.

If you can’t perform a song given the current line up, find a new song.  There are 30 years worth of songs to play, so I have no idea why this is still in rotation (or, at least, in the one-man arrangement it’s been in since at least 2009).  However, here are a few ideas as to why this dead horse keeps getting beat: A) The band REALLY can’t be bothered to learn a new song; B) Somebody somewhere insists that this was a hit and the kids want to hear it; or C) “Well, we already paid for the damn xylophone, so somebody has to use it!”

This brings me to my biggest disappointment in the way the Bad Seeds keep trotting out the hits:  Nick Cave just does not give a shit.

I understand part of the appeal of a concert is seeing your favorite songs performed live.  Sometimes that means hearing what you expected, but with that rough edge that you don’t get from a recording.  Sometimes it means hearing something familiar arranged in a different way that allows the artist to re-work songs to capture them without the aid of multi-tracks and studio trickery or to change them completely.

For Nick Cave, however, it means forgetting words (a lot, like noticeably so in 3 or 4 songs.  And not changing the words or re-working them, but like singing the wrong lines and then stopping himself or forgetting to sing a verse and leaving an awkward silence).  It also means re-arranging the tempo so that there’s a lot of sing-talking after the normal end of the vocal part.  Sometimes those breaks of instrumentation allow flourishes in the live context, other times they just let the singer go slower and off tempo and catch it before the next verse starts.

What’s worse is that I was reading reviews of tour dates from earlier in March which noted the same things.  Forgotten lines in Stagger Lee?  It’s been 2 months of playing the same song to close out every set at every show.  It’s either artifice or indifference at this point, right?

When I said that concerts were ephemeral at the top, I was being somewhat glib.  The immediate experience of the live song is, of course, tempered by all the previous experience with the recorded song. 

In some regards, this works in the band’s favor.  For instance, I’m willing to forgive muddy PA systems since I know what a song “should” sound like.  However, when I know that I’m getting an inferior product due to circumstances well within the artist’s control . . . I’m less inclined to be satisfied with the experience.

Closing Story, Bro

I saw R.E.M. one time at one of those mid-tour stops at a large amphitheater in North Carolina right around 1999.  About halfway through, Michael Stipe stopped to tell a story about how being in the area reminded him of an old concert the band had played when they were much younger.  He said that he wanted to do something special and said that R.E.M. was going to play a song that they hadn’t played in years.  He even told us that he had to print the lyrics off the internet because it had been so long, but that they looked “mostly right.”  And then the band played Camera.  And probably 95% of the audience had no idea what it was or why Michael Stipe was standing up there, reading off a folded up piece of paper. 

But the band knew, and they wanted to do something special.  For itself.  For the super fans in the 5% audience.  So they played something they hadn’t played in years and probably winged it and probably muddled it, but gave the audience something special.

They played the song, then they went back to the hits. 

That was cool.  What were talking about again?

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