ESSAY BY IAN PENMAN
If there is a gulf between albums we admire, but only rarely play, and albums we uncritically adore, and never tire of playing, then Your Funeral… My Trial (1986) was probably the first Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds album that definitely fell, for me, into the latter category. 20 (20?) years ago Your Funeral… My Trial was a record I played to death; and 20 (20!) years on it still sounds as good – if not better.
I didn’t much like a lot of the music of the 1980s. One of the few things that stirred my blood back then was the erratic progress of Cave and his Seeds: a literate Australian obsessed with the illiterate American Deep South, backed by a motley Peckinpah-ragged band of Euro/Aussie players, peripatetically resident in London, Brazil, Berlin – seemed the very opposite of ‘parochial’ somehow. Sometimes I may have loved the idea of it all – torch songs on fire; abjection, narcotics, breakdown – as much as, if not more than, the actual recordings: Cave as cultured rock n’ role decadent, half Georges Bataille, half Jerry Lee Lewis; or, equal parts Edgar Allan Poe and Elvis Aaron Presley.
With this ‘new’ Funeral we get all kinds of revelation: it’s immediately – literally – clear what the point of the remastered reissue has been. It has a whole new clarity: layers, hues, textures spring out at you; you hear a great panorama of sound, subterranean swell of organ-bass-piano, a band finally clicking and sparking together, working at its height, enjoying itself. The Bad Seeds sound like a proper band, majestically skewed, wicked bad, inventive; and Nick Cave finally sounds like a singer, rather than a man chasing the image of a singer he has squirming inside his head.
Your Funeral… My Trial sounds far more arranged than I remembered: things sound broader, deeper, from the very off, the title track waltzing in on this marvelous Al Kooper-ish organ swell like the sonic equivalent of ecclesiastical purple trim, one stitch in a quasi-hymnal sweep of glinting detail. (Remastered epiphany one: aren’t there echoes here, in the song’s melody, of Presley’s ‘In The Ghetto’?). The bass is monumental, but somehow ghostly. Hear how the singer stretches – lives in – the “here” of “Here I am, little lamb…” Might not the softest song in the world hail from the hardest nights?
‘Stranger Than Kindness’ has to be near top of my own personal Desert Island list of Cave works. (Albeit credit goes to ‘Lane/Bargeld’.) Sheer dream of a timeless yet timely torch song, like yearning or wistfulness made sound, it feels lighter than air yet heavier than sin. Unique arrangement by Bargeld, sonic eddies like warm breath around your ear, discreetly framing Cave sermonising like Orson Welles in Huston’s Moby Dick. (I love the way he almost caresses the phrase “they journey, they loiter,” and, especially, “Tell me I’m dirty…”) Bargeld makes guitars sound like spray, spume or embers. A song you don’t need to be some delirious Nick Cave believer to believe in, to adore.
‘Jack’s Shadow’ trips on a deviously simple acoustic blues figure, the drums like guillotine fanfare, Bargeld’s electric slide summoning sheer sonic anxiety, the song itself like Mailer’s unwieldy Executioner’s Song compressed into the breezy allegory of Song. Jack has peeled off and must throw his demon away; Cave seems to be on the verge of reaching some kind of fruitful accommodation with his own. Where on previous works it wasn’t entirely clear whether he was in charge of his demons/obsessions, Your Funeral… My Trial now sounds like the watershed moment when a proper measure of artistic control was gained, to be subsequently built upon.
‘The Carny’ totters near the grimy ledge of self-parody – but the music is so delicious, so delicate and rich and properly arranged (and captures somehow such a depth of genuine sadness) it’s impossible to resist. This was the song Cave & The Seeds performed in Wenders’ Wings of Desire; although in hindsight it seems hard to think of Wenders and Cave in the same room, artistically – or more to the point maybe, theologically – speaking. Somehow no coincidence that the rock-star that later wrote for Wenders was the egregious Bono – who does seem right for the director. (I’ll say no more than that.)
It always seemed to me Cave was far more of a Peckinpah man – someone with dirt in his worship. (And going by The Proposition, I don’t think I was a million miles out.) Wings of Desire is finally a bit too New Age-y, a fairy tale for adults, whereas Cave is far more Old Testament. ‘The Carny’ is a theology of the outskirts, scapegoats and penitents unseen and uncelebrated…
‘She Fell Away’ features one of my all-time favourite Cave lines: “Seems impossible to me now / But once the road lay open like a girl…” and the unfeasibly sublime ‘Sad Waters’ has too many favourite lines to quote. At this distance, we may note how Cave is learning to sing, really sing, such lines. Hear, for example, the way he invests an almost throwaway, simple line like “Mary in the shallows / laughing” with such tenderness and ache. Something listening to this re-issue led me to notice is how saturated the whole album is with religious quotes, references, and overtones. It’s often so subtle you may not even notice – carnal devotion italicised in the syntax of heavenly worship, as here, where Mary’s honey body turns the “waters into wine”…
‘Hard On For Love’ may be the thumping-est thing Cave had essayed since the Birthday Party’s Junkyard O.D., its wired blood pounding somewhere between an unlikely Gospel and old favourite ‘Sonny’s Burning’. The remastered sound reveals folds and folds of inventive guitar dissipation.
Cave’s take on the Tim Rose classic ‘Long Time Man’ sounds genuinely wracked, abject; listen to the way he sings “love” in the line “I haven’t had any love…” – this is why Your Funeral… My Trial sounded so striking in1986 and why it does so again, today. Indie music for the most part still sounds all too homogenously jangly and sexless and metaphysically empty to me, as it did then; and Cave still sounds like a man consumed by devotion, doubt, love, need. He throws himself into song, as into something both forbiddingly holy and something seductively unclean.
If some found the concentration on murdered girls and murderous impulses “problematical and excessive” – well, maybe that is more than half the point; for some of us were immensely grateful to Cave for having the courage to be one of the only such “problematical and excessive” things in a distinctly lily livered time.
And have things changed that much? A lot of today’s New/Freak folk, for instance: doesn’t its wistful ‘sorrow’ sound like little more than a convenient air freshener setting? Where for Cave on Funeral sorrow is like some huge boulder he drags everywhere he goes: retribution, a weighing, flailing this way and that, between the church and the brothel, the carnival and the cathedral. Junk sick and lovesick The Singer may have been, but he still sounds like he has more dirty, punchy, perplexed life inside him than most of his dreary contemporaries: as ravished, fiery, and full of exorcism and mortification and yelp as some strange new kind of Jerry Lee Lewis for our PC times.
Ian Penman, 2009
The Bad Seeds sound like a proper band, majestically skewed, wicked bad, inventive; and Nick Cave finally sounds like a singer, rather than a man chasing the image of a singer he has squirming inside his head.