Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds: B-Sides & Rarities (Part II)
What is the point of a rarities collection right now, anyway? The world’s creative spoils seem fated for an eternal black box, an ever-expanding cloud where everything we make (and lots of what we’ve already made) will remain accessible forever. Why buy an artist’s flotsam when you can stream the lot for free?
This is especially true of someone like Nick Cave, who is not only halfway into his fifth decade of releasing records but has also cultivated a cultish allegiance among his faithful. With almost no work at all, you can watch the Bad Seeds rehearse in 1987 in a tiny Berlin room, see him transfix with an exquisite version of “Into My Arms” in 1999 in an all-star songwriters’ circle, or laugh as he roasts Billy Corgan during a 1994 interview by telling him he has the “mentality of a teenager.” Thanks to assorted EPs, singles, and soundtracks, nearly half of the 27 songs on Cave’s new B-Sides & Rarities (Part II) have already been available on YouTube for years. If something by Cave can be archived, his legion has likely done it.
But the internet’s black box doubles as a dustbin, a place where junk and jewels coexist because they’ve never really been sorted. That remains the purpose of a rarities collection—an opportunity for an artist to make sense of what they once assumed was ephemera or errata, to see if it can cohere with the rest. In Cave’s case, it absolutely does. He has, after all, spent his career flitting between the gutter and the gods, fighting through depravity in search of some higher meaning or, at the very least, a whiff of redemption. If his castoffs offer different perspectives on that same quest, why shouldn’t they be collected and ordered to tell a different version of the same story? Compiled by Cave and Bad Seed-in-chief Warren Ellis, B-Sides & Rarities (Part II) reveals alternate windows into the worries and insecurities behind Cave’s careworn face, then offers what little advice he can spare about how to overcome them.
Cave & the Bad Seeds released their first such compendium in 2005, consecrating their first two decades with a wild and disorienting 56-song ride. The Bad Seeds were young and wild then, a shambolic rock band as open to No Wave as they were the Delta blues. They scored Cave’s tales of gothic delight with mischief and messy power. Salvaged from singles, live recordings, and soundtracks (including, hilariously, Scream 3), the massive set felt as overwhelming as a YouTube wormhole.
Stretching from 2006 to 2019, Part II is more focused. It picks up when the Bad Seeds still had that scabrous rock-band glow, when they attacked a song as though intent on shaking it to death. They sound jubilant during opener “Hey Little Firing Squad,” a B-side from Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!, the Bad Seeds’ final (for now) full transmission as unrelenting rockers. Cave traces the assorted anxieties that haunt even the best relationships, but the band turns it into an earworm, its shouted hook inescapable. “Accidents Will Happen” lifts an Elvis Costello title, but its lechery shapes a ringer for the same nervy, fun aplomb that defined Archers of Loaf. “Accidents keep happening/This old world was born from one,” Cave sings at one point, the wink practically audible beneath the sneer.
Much of the set, though, portrays Cave in a moment of profound musical transition, shifting from the acerbic leader of a menacing rock band to the contemplative mind at the center of the more esoteric electronic textures that shape 2016’s Skeleton Tree and 2019’s Ghosteen. When the Bad Seeds opened their 1984 debut with a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Avalanche,” it was noise-pocked, accusatory, and mean; the piano-and-strings version here, recorded for television in 2015, is tender, lachrymose, and almost defeated. This is the plea of someone who has found no suitable answers for urgent existential questions despite 30 more years of asking. He’s trying a new approach.
This struggle is the core of this set, same as it has almost always been for Cave. He stockpiles talismans against an unseen evil during the throbbing “Needle Boy.” He does his best to avoid a nervous breakdown amid the fried circuits of “Lightning Bolts,” a fraught contemplation of being a parent in a world so fucked that even “in the cradle of democracy, the pigeons are wearing gas masks.” Visions of gargantuan insects plague him during “Big Dream (With Sky),” a Ghosteen-era duet with Ellis that unfurls like a dirge. One of the most glowering works in Cave’s vast songbook, “Steve McQueen” considers murder, sexual predation, depression, and suicide over four minutes of an eerie synth drone. “I’m Steve McQueen, the atrocity man,” he deadpans after a death threat, “with my strap-on, blood-borne dream.”
Cave takes care to temper this despair, or at least peer around it when possible. The version of “Skeleton Tree” included here—one of four demos from recent albums—is despondent and lurid, with Cave taking potshots at Jesus that didn’t make the relatively sanguine final version. The first attempt was ostensibly too much. A pair of interconnected tone poems, “Euthanasia” and “Life Per Se” express cautious optimism in love, knowing that it can shatter or save you in an instant. “In the end, it is your heart that kills you/It’s all wrong, but it’s all right in its way,” he later warns before recommitting himself to the risk.
Both halves of Part II finish with singalongs. The first disc (or LP) concludes with an enchanting version of “Push the Sky Away,” an anthem of perseverance and individuality that’s lifted here by an Australian chorus and orchestra. Cave ends it by thanking everyone—the instrumentalists, the singers, Ellis, all corners of the crowd. It is an indulgent act of gratitude, Cave verklempt that his darkest thoughts have found people for whom they are beacons.
The second ends with “Earthlings,” Cave’s stoic reflection on art’s ability to deliver us from our own evil. “I thought these songs would one day set me free,” he offers with a hangdog tone. “I thought these songs had traveled here for me.” But as the song progresses, he notes that his pals are approaching, gathering together for his benefit. Perhaps they’re the ones who are there to set him free, to help him ensure this hard time passes, too. But is this a party or a funeral? When those same friends sing the coda in union, their harmony feels as bittersweet as an autumn bonfire with loved ones, dead leaves falling all around the warm blaze. Both tracks are perfect capstones for what Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds have done for nearly 40 years, both on full albums and with the outcasts assembled here: Tell us about the bullshit, then try to find a way to withstand it.
Buy: Rough Trade
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