It may surprise fans of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds to learn that some works in the band’s canon – at least from the point-of-view of their creators – are tainted with misgivings. The problem arises from discrepancies between intention and outcome: that is, how the music the band thought they would be making at the outset of a recording session tallies against the music actually captured on record.
Henry’s Dream, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ seventh studio album, contains songs critics and fans alike have come to regard as indisputable classics from the band’s oeuvre: “Papa Won’t Leave You, Henry”, “Christina the Astonishing”, and “Jack the Ripper”, to name just a few. Yet, for the band, Henry’s Dream undeniably epitomises – much more so than any of their other albums – the loss of control that ensues when one has exerted but a slippery grip on some very vertiginous circumstances. A lot of unforeseen detours can arise on the road from initial conception to final release: sometimes you start off with very clear intentions and work on something very hard, but when all’s said and done, you can’t actually relate to it in the end.
“Henry’s Dream,” explains Nick Cave, “was one of the first records that I came to with an absolute sound in my head as to how this record should be. What I wanted to make with Henry’s Dream was a very violent acoustic record, basically using storytelling and acoustic instruments to create a really fucked up and violent sound, but which was in no way heavy. This, sadly, didn’t happen”
The primary inspiration underpinning Cave’s vision for the album was a sound he’d encountered in the streets and back alleys of São Paulo, Brazil. Prowling about his environs, Cave regularly encountered a certain indigenous type of busker “with clapped out acoustic guitars and a particular way of singing. I had no idea what they were singing about, but they were obviously narrative. They were just long rants over this bashed out music. It didn’t sound especially Brazilian in any way. It just sounded insane!”
Brazilian strip clubs too offered an oftentimes distracting offstage spectacle: small combos that would slip into the venue and serenade reluctant customers at length in Portuguese – in other words, basically musical pests that you pay to go away. One day a Brazilian companion translated for Nick some of the inscrutable content of their musical tributes: “ ‘You know what that guy is actually singing to that Japanese tourist over there? He’s singing, ‘I’ve fucked your mother.’ He explained the highly insulting and pornographic nature of these narratives.”
The music accompanying these tirades was neither samba, nor bossa nova, nor “Tropicalismo”, nor any of the other slick coolly elegant styles charmingly familiar to non-Brazilians. “It was raw and nasty,” urges Cave, “just a couple of guitars, walking from table to table, strolling minstrels – but nothing that I’d heard before. It was exciting! There was an urgency and an aggression to it, and I wanted to do something like that with Henry’s Dream… but I don’t think it really worked.”
Cave began to devise a new lyrical format for himself. The stories he conjured were elongate and ambiguous, epic in scope, and over-spilling with urgent and virulent verbiage. Words would depict a snapshot moment – sentimental, fragile and full of poignant detail – and then suddenly twist into scenes dripping with mysterious grandeur and surreally obscene horror.
The long narrative, with its motivational conceit of going for a walk and looking at the world, was first utilised by Cave in “Papa Won’t Leave You, Henry”. ”I used to walk a lot in Brazil and make songs up in my head,” remembers Cave. “That became very much a device for future songs: to set up a character, send him off into the world and see what happened.” To this day, it is a framework that he puts to use in his lyrics. Cave’s sense of these songs is that they “end up being reports back from the front line.”
The Good Son had evidenced a decided shift to a more “classic” form of songwriting; combined with less jarring arrangements and overall smoother production than earlier albums, it seemed to betoken a broader potential appeal. In Mick’s evaluation, Nick’s songwriting had become “a lot more coherent and focused”. Compared to his earlier work, a tune like “The Ship Song” could “maybe seem a bit like a straight pop-rock song, if you want to look at it that way.”
Apparently their record label did look it at that way: “Mute suggested that we get a ‘real’ producer to produce our next record. I think they heard The Good Son, heard a whole lot of ballads there, and possibly thought that they weren’t exploited or recorded in the right way,” conjectures Cave. Mick confirms, “Daniel [Miller, head of Mute] just suggested, ‘Maybe it’d be good to actually get a producer this time and see what happens.’ So we did.”
Nick knew exactly what he was looking for in a producer: “I remember sitting and going through records and I was actively trying to find a record that sounded the least produced. That’s why we came up with David Briggs; it felt like he just let those Neil Young records just happen organically and had little involvement in them. It felt like he recorded Neil Young and his band as he found them.”
Prior to the official session with David Briggs, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds took themselves to Dreamland recording studios, a converted chapel in upstate New York, near Bearsville, for a demo session. “Some of the original material that was recorded in Bearsville is sounding much better than the actual record,” maintains guitarist Blixa Bargeld. The released versions of “Christina the Astonishing”, “Loom of the Land”, and a b-side “Bluebird” were all results of that session.
Band personnel had changed substantially since recording The Good Son. The core of Nick, Blixa, Thomas and Mick remained unchanged. Kid Congo Powers had returned to The Gun Club (leaving Mick to handle rhythm guitar duties) and two new members were welcomed into the fold, both of them Australians: Conway Savage on piano and ex-Triffid Martyn Casey on bass. This unit proved to be rough and ready and fully capable of tackling Cave’s material head on, especially when it came to throwing down live studio performances. Blixa Bargeld enthuses, “What was really great about this record is the majority of that material was recorded together as a band — one take, classical way, all of them playing together — which is something that I cherish a lot.”
It appeared all systems go for a hell of a record, but the band’s warm glow of anticipation quickly dissipated. Briggs didn’t want to fly out to NY to record, so the band came to California, ending up out in Van Nuys, at Sound City studio in the San Fernando Valley. Unfortunately, Mick found Briggs’ choice of studio (like the one they had to use in Brazil for The Good Son) lacking. Normally when deciding on a studio, Mick notes that he “would choose quite ambient rooms so that we could get the room sound going. I thought there had been a mistake made with the studio when we went to LA. We let all that stuff go, but in the back of my mind was the feeling that it was the wrong decision.”
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds took in many hard-learned lessons from their exposure to Briggs’ modus operandi. One of the more positive drills ingrained by their tormenter was the value of multiple basic takes. Mick acknowledges: “We’d always just get lazy and go ‘Ah, that’ll do.’ Briggs actually just kept us playing on, like two or three takes beyond where we’d normally have stopped. So we learned from that, a lot actually: we learned to push that a bit harder and it was worth it. Even if it felt like a bit of a drag, it was worth it and that stayed with us I think.” Thomas on the other hand, is skeptical that Briggs actually had a clue what to look for in those takes: “He didn’t say anything. He just stood there in the control room next to us, playing the air guitar.”
Matters did not at all improve at mixes up in Malibu, at Indigo Ranch, the very studio where Briggs had pulled off several gold albums with Neil Young. Briggs insisted on keeping levels in the control room at full blast. “He just played it at an unbelievable volume all day,” laments Mick. “Then of course we took the mixes home and they just sounded like shit.”
Nick found it impossible to deal with Briggs. “It sounds ridiculous, but you had to be there,” says Nick. “No matter how angry or pissed off we got, he was just on the controls and did what he wanted. At some point, we all gave up.” Cave’s worst fears had been realised: “We watched our record be taken away from us. It just sounded to me really different from the record that I wanted to make.”
Evidently Briggs understood it as his designated duty to assume command of a bunch of guys who didn’t really know how to make a record and deliver what he thought was the best possible product; but having this extraneous person in the equation in an unassailable position of authority had impaired Nick and the band‘s ability to communicate freely and effectively between them.
Blixa’s succinct summary of the whole mess: “I think too many people worked on this record.”
Ironically, Henry’s Dream became one of the Bad Seeds most loved records.