In 1984 that old showman Ronald Reagan was leading a revival of the hoary favourite the Cold War to whoops of admiration from America’s fundamentalist born-again chorus. Even among the disaffected, the thought that we might indeed be living through the Last Days had some resonance. It was shaping up to be an age of dull conformity in which there were few renegades left standing.
Nick Cave’s The Birthday Party had been a lurid glorification of the last moribund days of rock and roll, a car crash of The Stooges, The Pop Group and Captain Beefheart in which you couldn’t tell the boys from the girls anymore.
But when, in their dissolute last performances, Cave sang the line about ‘another ship ready to dock’, there were those that felt that Cave, whose hedonistic excesses were well known, was consigning not just The Birthday Party, but his own career to the wrecker’s yard.
What they’d missed was that, as The Birthday Party had been, sometimes quite compellingly, falling apart, Nick Cave’s songwriting had been building, from the random comic-strip juxtapositions of ‘Prayers on Fire’, to the narrative sweeps of ‘Deep in the Woods’ and ‘Swampland’, both of which featured on the final EPs of the band’s life. It was like the moment in The Terminator when the random scraps of metal begin to coalesce and shape themselves again into a recognizable form.
That Cave should open his new outfit’s first album with a cover of a Leonard Cohen song, the delusional visionary brooding of ‘Avalanche’, was a sign that he had moved in for good to what Cohen would later call ‘the tower of song’. Cohen’s original had appeared on Songs of Love and Hate, an album whose title sounds like a manifesto for Cave’s solo career.
The narrative art that Cave had begun to master in the later days of The Birthday Party flourishes on From Her To Eternity, in the sick humour of ‘Wings Off Flies’ (in which a lovesick protagonist plays ‘she loves me, she loves me not’ with an unfortunate insect), and ‘A Box For Black Paul’ (an examination of whose demise could possibly be interpreted as a funeral inquest for The Birthday Party), and the cautionary Mississippi tale of ‘Saint Huck’ who ‘trades in the mighty Old Man River/ For the Dirty Old Man Latrine’.
Cave had first explored an American South of the imagination in ‘Swampland’; but if some lyrics showed Cave the Wild Colonial Boy in a psycho-geographic realm that had previously intrigued other non-Southerners (for example, Canadians Neil Young and the Band’s Robbie Robertson), musically From Her to Eternity sounded like nothing ever heard hitherto.
Blixa Bargeld (recruited from the Berlin experimentalists Einstürzende Neubauten, who were more associated with chains and pneumatic drills than conventional instruments) plays the guitar like someone who had never seen this strange six-string thing before. “I don’t really think he knows how to play in the conventional sense at all,” Cave enthused at the time, “he just makes these incredible sounds”. Mick Harvey’s unique abilities as an arranger sculpted the sound into something that was as expressive as it was violent.
The album’s high point is its title track in which sound and imagery come together to create an extraordinary emotional rawness, that hint at what was to come much later on the stark, lovesick vistas of The Boatman’s Call. Cave was always reluctant to discuss the real-life background to ‘From Her to Eternity’ although he did rather invite the questions by putting his ex-girlfriend Anita Lane (who shares co-songwriting credit for the song) on the cover. The song’s protagonist, twisted with jealousy watches the plaster of his ceiling turn into coiling serpents as he strains for the sounds of his departed love in the room above ‘I know it might sound absurd,’ sings Cave, ‘but I can hear the most melancholy sound I ever heard’.
Although From Her to Eternity was recorded in the UK at Trident, Berlin was part of its sonic makeup, not least in the contribution of native Berliner Blixa Bargeld, as was Southern Blues, although this influence is more explicit in the follow up album, The Firstborn Is Dead. And out of the ashes of the Birthday Party, some scratched old records by southern bluesmen, and the last days of the divided Berlin, something new was born.