This article originally appeared in the July 24, 1984, issue of the Boston Phoenix.
With their third LP, 1982’s Junkyard, the Birthday Party initiated a musical shift that set them far apart from their doomy (and mostly atonal) peers, adrenalin and feigned anguish giving way to mock (and mocking) operatic hysterics like “Hamlet” and “Dead Joe.” Backed by guitarist Rowland S. Howar’s tuneless and arrhythmic “blues” wailing, vocalist Nick Cave attempted to transform himself from Stooge-ish frontman into misery-goat crooner. Cave’s often hilarious gesticulations became more pointed with the Birthday Party’s two 1983 releases The Bad Seed, and the post-break-up Mutiny!. If Junkyard parodied rock “poets,” The Bad Seed carved up all rock romantics with Cave’s “Fear of Gun” and “Deep in the Woods” (“A funeral ...is swinging!!”) being the most ghastly “love songs” he had yet written. In Mutiny the Birthday Party turned the scalpel on themselves: the violence in “Swampland” was a throwback to the wildness of their early material; “Say a Spell” was a teary farewell that wouldn’t have been out of place on Broadway.
But if the Birthday Party were so damn adept at cutting out the heart of rock and roll and eating it Ed Gein style, why’d they break up? Possibly because their loose brand of exhumation was in danger of becoming as ritualized as the bloated styles they preyed on, as they played live sets to audiences expecting nothing but noise and watched a string of oh-so-serious imitators spring up (Moodists, Turkey Bones & the Wild Dogs). Now, having left the Birthday Party, Cave is fulfilling the band’s intention of whittling away at rock’s skeleton with far less clamor and clutter. On Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds’ debut LP From Her to Eternity (Mute, import) he is backed by an all-star cast that includes ex-Birthday Party drummer Mick Harvey, ex-Magazine bassist Barry Adamson, Einsturzende Neubauten guitarist Blixa Bargeld, and newcomer guitarist Hugo Race; and his somber bellowing is no longer suffocated ( as fine a band as Birthday Party was, Cave was often drowned out by Howard’s acetylene guitar). Given room, Cave’s tragi-comedies take on epic proportions. “Well of Misery” ranks as the most hopeless piece he’s performed (“The same god that abandoned her/ has in turn abandoned me/ And softenin’ the turf with my tears/ I dug a well of misery”); with Adamson, Harvey, and Race providing a restrained blues accompaniment, Cave comes close to playing it straight.
This is not to suggest From Her to Eternity is overly gloomy. Hardly a brooding artiste, Cave has often claimed that Elvis Presley’s Vegas-era material is more evocative that the King’s early rock and roll. If you keep this in mind, his deadpan reading of “In the Ghetto” (Mute single, import) makes more sense; what better evidence for his thesis of rock as a colossal joke than the overweight, heavily drugged, incoherent Presley This Is Elvis?. With Bargeld’s guitar groaning softly in the background, Cave takes Presley’s campy (if not futile) stab at social consciousness and instead of trashing it up (as, say, Lux Interior would) turns it into a ludicrous and chilling piece of melodrama (when he releases the sad Police Story tale of how “the young man breaks away/ He buys a gun/ He steals a car/ He tries to run/ But he don’t get far,” he has you convinced, if only for a minute, that this fable has brought genuine pain to his heart).