ESSAY BY JIM SCLAVUNOS
In the aftermath of the prolonged enterprise cum transnational three-ring circus that comprised the creation and completion of Tender Prey, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, both collectively and individually, desperately required a sabbatical – Cave in particular. “Nick never let the drugs get in the way, but I think he knew by the end of Tender Prey, that it was messing up what he was trying to do,” argues Mick Harvey. “Some people just fall into indolence and fail to do anything for ten years. Nick was still trying to do stuff, but it had gotten so bad, it was really getting in the way. He went off to a clinic.”
By his own admission, Cave emerged from his spell in the clinic a damaged recluse. “You think I was bad going in, you should of seen when I came out. I locked myself in a room in Clapham for a year and did nothing,” states Cave, who claims he sat and watched five videos a day and ate Indian takeaway every night for a year. “I couldn’t get out of the house. I was a basket case.”
But not a complete basket case: for during that time, Nick had access to a piano upstairs from his flat at which he would occasionally sit and write. Two numbers Nick drew out of himself during his Clapham lacuna were “The Train Song” and “Sorrow’s Child”; and both tunes ended up being recorded in the course of sessions for what ultimately became Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds sixth album release, The Good Son.
These days a prolific and disciplined songwriter, Nick tends to downplay inspiration as a work-a-day routine, but acknowledges, “I have times when I feel hugely energised and other times I feel depleted and very unconfident about what I’m doing. But in those difficult times, it’s difficult to write, but I still turn up and ride them out. The down periods, grim as they are, are very much part of the process, I’ve come to discover.”
With the scheduling of a South American tour in April of 1989 – hitting Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and Chile – to promote Tender Prey, Cave’s inertia was about to receive an irresistible jolt that would alter the course of his life & the band in many respects. Upon landing in Brazil, Cave enthuses, “I stepped out of Rio airport into the sun and felt a huge psychic weight lift off me.”
The line-up for this tour consisted of Nick, Mick, Blixa, Thomas, German keyboardist Roland Wolf and Kid Congo. Over a year in the band, Kid found himself still searching for a niche for his unique guitar style. The other guitarist, the formidable Blixa Bargeld, possessed a technique and sound on the instrument no less distinctive or individual than Kid’s; in fact, in the course of working together, Kid discovered he in fact shared much in common with Bargeld, who Kid believes can indeed “play guitar a lot better than a lot of people think he can.” Together, the two of them made a concerted effort of “trying not to step on each other toes,” explains Kid, lest the unholy uproar they were capable of raising in tandem eschew any semblance of musical organization and “descend into nothing but racket!”
Roland Wolf, like Kid, joined The Bad Seeds in the interim period between Your Funeral… My Trial and Tender Prey, but his stint with the band was fast drawing to a conclusion. Thomas explains, “Nick couldn’t handle [Roland’s] behavior, especially in the studio. [Roland] was a complicated person, depressive.” Roland decided to shave his head, a look Nick apparently didn’t care much for. “I think Roland thought he was in Taxi Driver or something,” muses Thomas. In any case, it was the last straw for Cave and Roland was eventually dismissed from the band.
Though matters had literally come to a head between Wolf and Cave, in other respects Nick felt relieved and rejuvenated, both in his personal life and his songwriting. At the end of the tour, Nick decided to remain in São Paulo, while the rest of the band returned to Berlin.
Amidst all these changes, little wonder a different style of song began pouring out of Nick: “I started to write a lot and I didn’t really go back; I just stayed in Brazil. A lot of stuff started to come quite quickly: ‘The Weeping Song’, ‘The Ship Song’, ‘Foi Na Cruz’ – these extremely sweet love songs appeared.” As it turned out, the songs from that period prefigure and hint at something that would henceforward become a Cave obsession: to write a kind of “classic” love song, a craft he would devote many years to fine honing.
It was during this period also that Nick really began to come to grips with the piano as a compositional tool. Although he’d had two years of piano lessons in his pre-teens and knew how to make a chord, for all practical purposes, Cave could not perform at the keyboard as fluidly as his songs demanded. “In the early days,” he admits, “there was no way I could sit down and play and sing a song that sounded convincing. That’s not to say I couldn’t hear how it could it be in my head, but it would very much have to be interpreted by the band. Something like ‘The Carny’ for example: all the parts were written on the piano. I just couldn’t necessarily play the stuff.”
As his piano technique evolved organically from (being inherently integral to) the songs he was writing, Nick realized that, not only was he getting better at playing the instrument, his vocabulary and palette as a composer/arranger was slowly becoming more sophisticated and agile. “I’d found a certain kind of chord progression,” he observes, “that I noticed was beautiful, obvious… and instantly sad.”
Cave chose to tackle all the piano parts for the new album. As Thomas recalls, “We were all very surprised that he comes up and plays this stuff in the studio in the recording.” Once the songs were demoed in and string arrangements drawn up, the band returned to Brazil to begin basic tracking proper.
Accompanying them, their live front-of-house soundman, fellow Australian Victor Van Vugt, assumed the role of the recording engineer. Mick reckons it was an easy and logical choice: “We were good friends with him and all the rest of it. He could come to Brazil with us and we knew he’d do the job (and not be going off taking drugs half the time) and actually get the recording done.”
After the chaos surrounding Tender Prey, the idea of re-entering the studio with producer/engineer Tony Cohen straightaway was unappetising. Tony had a long motley history with Nick and Mick, stretching back to The Birthday Party. A strong, inventive, invective and decidedly maverick presence in the studio, Tony had worked side by side with them on many of their records. Nonetheless, Mick avers, “We needed a break from him. We had done quite a lot of work with him. A change can be quite important. We needed to not work with Tony on that album.” Victor, on the other hand, was already a known quantity having worked with them on the road; and as they knew he was doing a lot of studio work, Mick affirms, “We thought he’d be fine to record the band.”
In any case, the decision to record in Brazil was definitely stepping out of the comfort zone for all concerned. As it turns out, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds’ regional record company had seen fit to provide some not entirely helpful input in their recommendation of studio facility. Mick reveals, “Because the record company was based in São Paolo, they really wanted us to record there; but all the good music studios were actually in Rio! So they put us into what was effectively an advertising recording studio. I mean, it was a good studio. The room was an okay size, but it was a bit of a struggle to get the piano isolated from the drums. That was a drag, as you can imagine.”
Unaccustomed attitudes made for some memorably odd exchanges in the course of the sessions. A bit of melodrama courtesy of the session vocalists made the “Foi Na Cruz” overdubs rather amusing as Kid recalls: “Nick really wanted this lullaby-type of singing from the Brazilian singers they brought in; but the singers really wanted it to go differently. The way he wanted them to sing it, they were saying there wasn’t enough pathos in it, and I remember they were like, ‘Oh! We’ll just act like we’re dead then!’” Needless to say, in the end, Nick got his way, and regardless of whether the singers were happy or not, their understated performance is gorgeous and moving.
Portuguese lyrics and passionate Brazilian backing vocalists notwithstanding, there’s nothing overridingly ethnic about The Good Son. Stimulated though they may have been by the vivid cultural energy of São Paulo (not to mention the caçacha), no overt local influences managed to seep in from their surrounds. “I listened to a lot of Brazilian stuff,” offers Cave, “and there were artists that I thought were really good; but I never wanted to bring any of that into the Bad Seeds’ music.”
A case could perhaps be made that through his lyrics and the tender temperament of the music, Nick was harkening to the Brazilian notion of bittersweet melancholia, or saudade, but he denies this. “That’s just a word, that’s just semantics. That concept of saudade, even though the English language apparently doesn’t really have an equivalent word for it, doesn’t mean we don’t understand that particular feeling, or that it’s a uniquely Brazilian feeling.”
Live ensemble recordings, in combination with the gentler touch of many of the new songs Cave was devising, signaled a sea change in the band’s evolution, perhaps easier to spot by those on the periphery than those fervidly immersed in the thick of the process. Cave remembers sitting with former Bad Seed Hugo Race after having just mixed The Good Son. “We were listening to it back, and I was like, ‘Man, that’s really good!’ and Hugo was like, ‘Nick, I think people are going to have a lot of difficulty with this record.’ ‘Oh… why?’ And he said, ‘Well, it’s just so different.’ And I didn’t really see it in any way running against the continuum of our records. I just saw it as looking in a different area, like all our records did. But this ended up being a record where certain people started to have grave reservations about what direction I was taking The Bad Seeds.”
If certain people had reservations, Mick certainly has reservations about that perceived so-called ‘commerciality’: “A lot of people thought there were aspects of [The Good Son] that were perhaps more approachable for people who might normally find The Bad Seeds a bit gnarly. I don’t know if that makes it more ‘commercial’: it’s still not going to appeal to the broader community. We all wondered how our fans at that time might feel about it, because there was certainly a ‘softer’ approach to everything, but that emanates from the writing. Nick’s got a direction that he wants to go in and indicates that; then you apply your style and your way of playing to that direction. Nick was dictating the softer sense to things.”
Commercial or not, when it was released, The Good Son brought to light another facet of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds artistry and Nick’s songwriting set the course for a wholly different phase of the band. The Good Son contains some of the most enduring and beloved works in their repertoire. This new edition, gloriously re-mastered in 5.1, only enhances the radiance of the original.