Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds Reviews

My reviews of all of Nick Cave’s studio albums with his bands. I have decided not to include his numerous soundtracks on this list, as I have never listened to any of them as albums and I have only heard a few in the movies themselves (and not recently). I have also not included his spoken word albums or that one album where he wrote the libretto but I don’t think played an instrument.

1979: The Boys Next Door: Door Door (???)

I have never listened to the Boys Next Door’s debut album. Read my reviews of albums released in 1979.

1980: The Boys Next Door: The Birthday Party (???)

Nor have I heard their second and final album, confusingly also considered the debut album of The Birthday Party, which is what they changed their name to after they released this record. Read my reviews of albums from 1980.

1981: The Birthday Party: Prayers on Fire (9/10)

Imagine the ’80s Bad Seeds but even more anarchic, even more chaotic, even more aggressive. That’s The Birthday Party. It’s as if The Bad Seeds were a concession to accessibility.

Years after first hearing it, this remains their only record I’ve ever heard. [Editor’s note: No longer true. SEe below.] But it remains a post-punk classic in my mind, combining the energy and provocation of punk music with an extremely arty bent, with a heavy dose of theatre. And it stands out from so much of the other great post punk of its era, managing to put a unique spin on a sound that was too often wannabe Joy Division.

A great record.

Read my reviews of music from 1981.

1982: The Birthday Party: Junkyard (8/10)

Junkyard is arguably every bit as loud, violent and theatrical as its predecessor. It is, perhaps, slightly more rooted in blues than Prayers on Fire but, beyond that, it’s pretty much equally unconventional. As fans of Cave and the Bad Seeds will discover, this band is much, much worse (in a good way).

But I think Prayers on Fire has the strong set of songs and the novelty of that record – the novel combination of punk with cabaret, blues and other influences not typically found in post punk – is no longer novel. [Editor’s note: Hardly fair given that Prayers on Fire is their third album.]

This is still excellent post punk, it’s just not quite as trailblazing as its predecessor. It’s easy, in hindsight, to see why they moved on to something else.

Read my reviews of 1982 albums.

1983: Burnin’ the Ice (???) with Die Haut

I didn’t even know this existed until today.

1984: The Bad Seeds: From Her to Eternity (8/10)

If you had never heard The Birthday Party before listening to this record (as I hadn’t) I can imagine a world in which this record sounded truly great. I know that because it happened to me, as this was one of my introductions to this band. And placing it into the context of 1984 it manages to sound both unique and distinctly un-1984. But having listened to the Birthday Party a bunch since, I now know that the Bad Seeds didn’t exactly have a unique sound, even if lots of personnel changed from one band to the other.

This record is, if you can believe it, like a kinder, gentler (and more literate!) Birthday Party. The edge has been dulled and it is closer to the some of the traditions the Birthday Party sought to upend.

The record does do a pretty good job of setting up the first half of their career too: the covers in their imitable style plus originals with Cave’s singular fixations plus the Bad Seeds’ (relatively) unique approach to post punk. It’s a sound they’d mostly stick with for the next decade plus, even if they did improve upon it at times.

With time it has grown to be not one of my favourite Bad Seed records, but I still recognize it as important for how it launched their career and distinguished them from the extremely difficult and confrontational band that preceded them. (It is extremely hard to imagine the latter day Bad Seeds evolving out of the Birthday Party with this iteration in between.)

Read my reviews of albums from 1984.

1985: The Bad Seeds: The Firstborn is Dead (8/10)

The Bad Seeds’ blues album, which was a big surprise to me. They take both old blues tunes and a not so old country tune (I think it’s country) and turn it into a demented re-imagining of the Blues that sounds much more like the early Bad Seeds – and even, at times, the Birthday Party – than it does the blues being made by most contemporary American artists at the time and, especially, British artists. As noted elsewhere on RYM, this is about as good as foreign approximations of the Blues get, in the ’80s anyway.

If you’ve never heard the early Bad Seeds, this might come as a shock – i.e. if you’re only familiar with their much more accessible later music – but this is probably their most accessible early album (at least that I’ve heard). And it’s thematic and musical consistency makes it a standout, even if Cave hasn’t quite yet developed into the great songwriter he eventually became.

Read my reviews of music from 1985.

1986 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds albums:

Kicking Against the Pricks (6/10)

This is a diverse album of covers, from blues songs to folk and country songs to more mainstream pop songs to a Velvet Underground cover. And the performances are equally diverse, including some really out there versions of some of these songs (see “Hey Joe.” for instance)

The problem for me is that sometimes they really alter the song and sometimes they do a fairly faithful version. It feels schizophrenic to my ears and I wish they had committed to radical versions of all of the songs, not just some of them.

This is the least essential Bad Seeds album I’ve yet heard.

Your Funeral…My Trial (???)

I have actually never listened to this one. Read my reviews of 1986 albums.

1988: The Bad Seeds: Tender Prey (9/10)

It’s funny that Nick Cave dislikes this record because I’ve long thought of it as the pinnacle of the earlier, punkier, more dangerous version of the Bad Seeds. Records before this always strayed too far away from melody, and the first records after this leaned to far into caricature, later albums lost the edge.

With years of reflection and way too many listens, I still think it’s probably the best record they put out in the 1980s, but it’s more flawed than I used to think. It’s the best set of songs, but a few of them, including the most famous one, hang around too long. That’s sort of the point, live, I think, but on a studio recording, where they’re a little neutered, it’s a little too much.

There’s still nothing like this blend of melody and menace, and some of the more interesting arrangements of their career (necessitated by members of the band regularly missing in action).

If you don’t know the earlier Bad Seeds, before Cave became a different kind of songwriter, this is the record to start with.

Read my reviews of albums from 1988.

1990: The Bad Seeds: The Good Son (7/10)

I love Tender Prey. For me, it’s the culmination of the Seeds through their first era, a powerful combination of punk-influenced music and songwriting well beyond the quality of most punk albums.

But I also like left-turns. And I can imagine a world in which this left turn into far softer, more traditional singer-songwriter type music, could be viewed as a brave and creative left turn. If I had been an adult music fan and a Cave fan at the time this came out, maybe I would have felt that way.

But instead, I am listening to this record 30 years later, and I know the majority of Cave’s albums, if not every single one of them. I know where they went and that is probably the problem I am having here.

People point out this record is the beginning of the second version of the Seeds – the kinder, gentler Seeds as I call them – but that’s a too neat revisionist look at it. This band still put out Murder Ballads half a decade later, a very violent album – if not musically as much as the ’80s Seeds, certainly lyrically.

It’s an early step in their evolution from post-punk to something more conventional. Which is fine. But that’s my issue, as it feels very much like the transitional album it is.

That’s something I wouldn’t mind if this was one of Cave’s best sets of songs but it’s not. Now, this is Nick Cave, one of the great songwriters of his generation and one of my favourites. The songs are good. But they’re not consistently great.

One might make an argument that Cave didn’t truly come into his own as one of the great songwriters of his generation until Let Love In or, really, The Boatman’s Call. Before that, his inconsistent songwriting was supported, on his best albums, by his incredible backing band.

Now, maybe I don’t entirely buy that argument. I love Tender Prey, as I said. But I think it might be true more often than not. And I think it’s true here, which is why I don’t love this record: Cave’s songs are alright, some are better than others. But the powerful, violent Seeds have been neutered for this safer, more “mature” sound. That’s fine when the songs are of the quality of The Boatman’s Call or No More Shall We Part. But they’re not, are they?

Read my reviews of music from 1990.

1992: The Bad Seeds: Henry’s Dream (???)

The only ’90s Bad Seeds album I’ve never listened to. Read my reviews of 1992 albums.

1994: The Bad Seeds: Let Love in (9/10)

While the wildness of the early Seeds is still very much present on this record, there are also occasional hints of the sound that would emerge in the late ’90s in the ballads. Though I have yet to hear all of the ’80s Seeds records, this is probably a good candidate for having Cave’s strongest set of songs to date, with the emphasis slowly moving towards craft over pure aural experience.

It’s not quite Tender Prey in my eyes, but it’s still among the very strongest of the Seeds records before they calmed down/grew up.

PS: This is the most Spaghetti Western of all Bad Seeds albums.

Read my reviews of albums released in 1994.

1996: The Bad Seeds: Murder Ballads (8/10)

Lyrically, this is the darkest, most morbid album the Bad Seeds ever recorded. And Cave walks a dangerous line, where he almost veers into self-parody. (He might well on some of the most graphic songs.) But it’s a unique record and, if you’re going to name your record Murder Ballads, well, you should follow through on that.

Musically it’s mature compared to much of the early Bad Seeds – the bursts of noise that we’re used to are used more sparingly and to greater effect in terms of backing the lyrics. And it feels of the folk tradition, even if the music doesn’t really fit into that category.

We can probably think of this record as the very last of the early Bad Seeds records – the last record to be so obsessed with death, crime and punishment, and the last one to be as musically abrasive as the Seeds could be. And I guess it’s a pretty decent note for that version of the band to go out on.

Read my reviews of music from 1996.

The Bad Seeds: The Boatman’s Call (10/10)

In retrospect, this feels like a watershed moment in the Bad Seeds’ career: when they abandoned their post-punk bombast for a very different sound; a sound that, for better or worse, has has been significantly influential on their later records.

In some ways it’s almost a Cave solo album, with him writing all the music and lyrics (for the first time, I believe) and with the songs being about his personal life. And with the significantly different, milder arrangements to boot.

All of this marks a radical change of direction which is a good thing, to my mind. (Not that I disliked the old version of the band, just that they were really milking it.) And this is among the very best sets of songs Cave has ever produced – perhaps it’s the best – containing a couple of personal favourites and, to my mind, not a single miss.

I don’t think its their very best record, but it’s #2 or #3. [Editor’s note: Potential hard disagree with that. I think it’s probably #1. Certainly in terms of song quality it’s #1.]

Read my reviews of 1997 albums.

2001: The Bad Seeds: No More Shall We Part (8/10)

Sometime in the mists of time, I wrote the following:

One of his best sets of songs in his career, it’s immaculately arranged and, despite the full sound of the band, it never feels over-produced. I think I lean more towards The Boatman’s Call in terms of which of these sort of austere turn-of-the-century records of his appeal to me more – to my ears there’s a significant difference in the sound of the Seeds both before The Boatman’s Call and after this record – but it’s still one of their very best records and is probably as good an introduction to the (relatively) kinder gentler seeds that have existed since the late ’90s.

Of course, this is a very different record than The Boatman’s Call, both in the lyrics and the arrangements. But they do sort of signal the dawn of the kinder, gentler Bad Seeds and Cave’s growth as a songwriter.

And it is one of his best albums.

Read my reviews of albums released in 2001.

2003: Nocturama (???)

The only Bad Seeds album from the aughts I’ve never listened to.

2004: The Bad Seeds: Abattoir Blues / The Lyre of Orpheus (10/10)

Maybe their best album(s). [Editor’s note: That’s how I felt when I heard it.]

The equal of Tender Prey, certainly. And the first record of theirs in a few years to sound more like the Bad Sees of old (which, in this case, is a good thing).

I know this is supposed to be two albums, but I can’t think of it that way. It marries everything together: their older, louder style, with the newer softer stuff.

My favourite album of theirs, anyway [at the time].

Read my reviews of music from 2004.

2007: Grinderman (8/10)

A decade after The Bad Seeds abandoned their chaotic post punk roots for a kinder, gentler sound, a few of them decided to show that they can still play loud, violent rock music.

I have long thought of this as part of Cave’s midlife crisis – he’s older and mellowed and so he wants to put out a record that has the kind of violence of The Birthday Party. Whatever the reasons why, I think they succeed across the board. Cave has written enough good songs and the entire aesthetic is refreshingly loud, violent and messy compared to what the main band had been doing for the last decade.

Read my reviews of 2007 albums.

2008: The Bad Seeds: Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! (7/10)

If Cave is having a midlife crisis (some of his lyrics sound like it), I guess this is part two, and it’s not as good as part one. Grinderman sounded refreshing after so many softer albums. This sounds kind of forced.

Good stuff.

Read my reviews of albums released in 2008.

2010: Grinderman 2 (8/10)

The songs are better this time out and the sound is more diverse. More Bad Seeds than Birthday party.

As much as I liked the “debut” (such a silly thing to say about people this old), this sounds better and stronger. It is a significant improvement on Dig Lazarus, Dig!!! and a slight improvement on the eponymous album.

I like.

Read my reviews of music from 2010.

2013: The Bad Seeds: Push the Sky Away (8/10)

What I said at the time: I greeted Grinderman with a fair amount of joy. Though it certainly seemed a little as if they band was trying to relive the past glories of the Birthday Party, enough of it felt different to let myself go with the renouncing of decades of personal musical history. But when it came to the Bad Seeds’ last album it seemed like it had been infected by Grinderman – which makes sense, given the presence of all of Grinderman in the Bad Seeds. Though the writing process was supposedly entirely different, the musical results weren’t so different – though different enough – and there certainly seemed to be a major lyrical theme running through both Grinderman albums and Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! Basically, the last Bad Seeds album felt like they were trying to tame Grinderman for their audience. And it didn’t make me happy. [Editor’s note: Clearly I developed that point of view after I wrote my brief review for Lazarus.]

I am happy to hear this, which sounds like they have completely forgotten Grinderman ever happened. This album has its own unique sound and production that, though occasionally reminiscent of the softest moments on Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!, doesn’t have much precedence in Cave’s canon. This is a good thing as far as I’m concerned. It’s as if Cave’s songs were presented in yet another new light.

December 2013: Cave is perhaps more conservative / reactive lyrically on this record than ever – and that’s getting harder and harder for me to take – but fortunately this record really does stand out in his canon as fairly unique in its arrangements and production. And that’s great: it’s nice to hear something familiar wrapped in something different.

Read my reviews of 2013 albums.

2016: The Bad Seeds: Skeleton Tree (8/10)

Push the Sky Away felt to me like a radical departure from the Bad Seeds’ sound but, if anything, this feels like an even more radical departure from the sound of The Bad Seeds. Though there are a couple of tracks that recall the sound they’ve pursued since the ’90s, most of it is unrecognizable as this band. That’s a good thing, I think. And brave for musicians of this age.

People all want this record to be about Cave’s son’s death but my understanding is that most of these songs were written well before that. Regardless, this is not Cave’s best set of songs ever, but the sheer shock of the arrangements is enough, for me, to ignore that.

It really is remarkable to hear older musicians still trying to find something new and different.

Read my few reviews of albums released in 2016.

2019: The Bad Seeds: Ghosteen (???)

For some reason I didn’t listen to this.