35 years of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

The band’s 1984 LP From Her to Eternity is the album Cave is most proud of.

Gaining recognition in a trend-heavy musical era riddled with surface showmanship, few artists have conquered the ’80s and been mythologized like Nick Cave. Much like his uniform of a tailored suit, slicked hair and shadow-casting features, his music stands the test of time. Thirty-five years after the release of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ first album, From Her to Eternity, his music continues to haunt fans.

With the announcement of the Bad Seeds’ newest album Ghosteen (being released next week), I couldn’t help but think about the band’s first album. When I first discovered Cave’s music, I was told it was like having a religious experience. Over the past weekend, hundreds of Montreal fans were literally taken to church for the Australian artist’s series Conversations With Nick Cave, which took place at l’Eglise Saint-Jean-Baptiste as part of POP Montreal.

Under chandeliers and arches, veils of blue and red lights illuminated the church, Cave performed and responded to open questions from the audience. The show began with a rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Avalanche,” the same song that opens From Her to Eternity. Though unlike the 1984 recording, this one was serene, a long cry from his original material, but equally memorable. 

When the question was raised about the proudest moment of his career, Cave responded “I’m most proud about From Her to Eternity,” without hesitation.

“The decision was to jut get it out there almost on a whim. I went to the studio without any idea of what to do or say,” he said. “I’m incredibly attached to that record.”

Though often called the Godfather of Goth, the musician has refused to fall into a single genre, twisting and bending his sound since the beginning of his career with Boys Next Door, which would become the Birthday Party. Growing into the Bad Seeds, each album has shaped what would become a genre exclusively applicable to himself. You could argue From Her to Eternity is when his music hit puberty. 

From Her to Eternity was released in June of 1984, directly following the break-up of the Birthday Party, which at the time was considered one of the most dangerous live musical acts. Elements of his previous band carried over to the Bad Seeds, including multi-instrumentalist Mick Harvey and Cave’s reputation for experimenting with hazardous sounds. 

Having learned and grown as a musician, the Bad Seeds were a more calculated group, planning their chaos with new members including Blixa Bargeld on guitar and Barry Adamson on bass, tapping into something dark, personal and new.  

Cave’s initial attraction to performance and audience-involving music came from Iggy Pop and the Stooges’ record Raw Power, but he was heavily influenced by the blues and the likes of Nina Simone. Lyrically and poetically, he has often cited Leonard Cohen as one of his biggest influences, calling him “the greatest songwriter of all of them” and “utterly unique and impossible to imitate no matter how hard we tried.”

Imitation has never been a part of Cave’s art, though interpretations of his favourite songs have become prominent in his musical catalogue. The Bad Seeds’ ambitious cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Avalanche” opens From Her to Eternity, setting the tone for the album that would place the Bad Seeds as a dark and uneasy entity that buries itself deep in your mind.

Discovering Cave’s music — and his lyrics — is like coming across a diary overflowing with violent confessions he never wanted anyone to see.  Whether it be a tender love song or a sinister murder ballad, the Bad Seeds are their own artistic entity, changing on their terms, not with musical trends. 

In the 1994 documentary Straight to You: Nick Cave – A Portrait, Cave says that if the Bad Seeds tried to be a “fashionable group or to try and do a record that was relevant to what was going on musically at the time, we would fail dismally and that would be the end of us.” 

Conceived in Berlin, From Her to Eternity continuing the narrative lyrical style that Cave had become known for in The Birthday Party. Fictional characters and stories are prominent on the album, with songs like “Wings Off Flies,” in which a twisted game of “she loves me, she loves me not” is played with insects, and the cautionary interpretation of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn “Saint Huck.” The final song on the album, “A Box for Black Paul,”  has been interpreted as the coffin of the Birthday Party, marking the end of his ties to his previous band.

Over the course of his 46 year career, Cave has left his mark not only as a musician but as a screenwriter, novelist, composer and occasional actor in movies like the long forgotten Johnny Suede, starring Brad Pitt. No matter his artistic outlet, his ominous energy, playful personality and connection to his audience has struck a chord with millions.

Musicians across all genres have spoken on the effect Cave has had on their art and their personal lives. Kylie Minogue, with whom he recorded the 1995 hit “Where the Wild Roses Grow,” said he “infiltrated my life in beautiful and profound ways,” adding that he is responsible for her return to pop music. Henry Rollins, Jack White and Jean Leloup have also spoken to his influence, while St. Vincen got her stage name from Cave’s 2004 song “There She Goes My Beautiful World,” saying it illustrates “squalor and grandeur.”

Since From Her to Eternity, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds have released 16 albums, constantly evolving through sound, narrative and members. Like traveling mystics, their music knows what listeners feel, even parts they don’t want to admit. While the Birthday Party hosted violent and chaotic performances, the Bad Seeds capture an audience with a kind of hypnosis. Few artists can go from pulverizing performances of songs like the title track and “Jack the Ripper” directly into total silence, where the only sounds within the venue are soft weeping.

During the 35 years since From Her to Eternity, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ discography has been a Choose Your Own Adventure with winding paths of despair, violence, love, personal tales and fictional narratives. Eventually all roads lead back to the same place of uncertainty, an uneasy portrait — and reflection of yourself — that never quite goes away. 

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ 17th album, Ghosteen, will be available on YouTube and at worldwide listening events on Nov. 3, and to download on Nov. 4.