Sunday, 23 March 2008

Top 100 Albums - #40: The Good Son (1990)

The second of four entries from Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds is The Good Son, which retells the parable of the two sons from the point of view of the elder son.
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds formed out of the wreckage of post-punk pioneers The Birthday Party, who split in 1983. Former members Nick Cave and Mick Harvey quickly assembed Blixa Bargeld (guitar), Hugo Race (guitar) and Barry Adamson (bass/ piano) and released their debut album, From Her To Eternity (1984). From this a string of albums followed which charted Cave's devout Christianity (The Firstborn Is Dead, 1985), his love of American music (Kicking Against The Pricks, 1986), and his battle with heroin addiction (Your Funeral... My Trial, 1986). The band, like King Crimson and Jethro Tull, had a constantly fluctuating line-up, with only Cave and Harvey remaining throughout. The release of Tender Prey (1988) set the trend for most future Bad Seeds recordings, linking these common strands together for the first time.

'Foi Na Cruz' opens the album, bringing with it some acoustic guitar and multi-dubbed vocals. This is loosely based on a Brazilian hymn, whose title translates as 'it was on the cross'. It's hardly a convincing start, with its slow-strum guitar and ponderous vocals. But eventually Cave's weary baritone rises to the challenge and staggers through the verses drenched in melancholy and bitter abandon. Backed by a Hammond organ part played with the subtle brilliance of Matthew Fisher (ex-Procol Harum), it's not five-star Bad Seeds but this remains a worthy start.

Now to the title track, and oh dear. Not only is the gospel opening enough to grate your nerves to shreds, but then Cave insists on setting his crooked syllables and thought pattern against an irritating snare roll and other more thundery percussion. The chorus drags terribly, lacking inspiration; and while Cave's lyrical style might have worked on something like 'Tupelo' or 'The Carny', here it comes across as all muddled and confused. This is not what we have come to expect from the enigmatic Australian.

Hereoin in, though, things slowly get better. Having vomited up enough gospel for the moment, Cave reverts to what he does best; introspective-sounding, piano-laden ballads with a twist. 'Sorrow's Child' is just this. The style and delivery of this, while a little heavier than his stuff from the late-1990s, is enthralling; as the verses tumble through your ears you are soothed and challenged in equal message. This sounds like the starting point for '(Are You) The One That I've Been Waiting For?' - elegant, soft in its instrumentation and complementary towards Cave's knarled tones.

'The Weeping Song' continues the promising trend with yet more piano. Well, not quite - it's a vibraphone. As well as this, this is not just Cave taking the mike; Bargeld joins him to sing the part of the father. And yet you'd never tell without reading the sleeve notes, since they sound so similar. There are some lovely touches here, like the timpanis which thunder through the off-beats at the end of each stanza, and the mournful-sounding hand claps that lead you teasingly into the chorus. The lyrics are good, too: "Father, why are all the women weeping?"/ "They are all weeping for their men"/ "Then why are all the men there weeping?"/ "They are weeping back at them".

After digging halfway through the unrelenting melancholy, we come across a particle of joy. 'The Ship Song', like its predecessor, is now a Bad Seeds standard - and it doesn't take a music critic to see why. Its tender piano opening comes across as crisp and smooth around the edges. The ghostly male backing vocals are absolutely ethereal, offset against Cave who shakes off the bitterness and irony for just a minute and croons from the gut. The whole band feels tight, allowing the choruses to swell with the drums and the verses to slide down to a crawl as the vibraphone takes control. More than anything else, though, this is an old-fashioned love song, a hymn from Cave to God and his lover, without the trappings of a slushy hit. It's magnificent.

Back to darkness now, and 'The Hammer Song'. This is much more typical of the 1980s Bad Seeds sound - unrelenting in its production, creepy in its vocals and deep and resounding in its percussion. The insistent xylophone and stricken violins only add to this mood as the song swells and reaches its climax. Like a lot of Bad Seeds songs, the meaning of the lyrics (or, for that matter, the lyrics themselves) get lost in the mood. But that doesn't matter so much, because the desired effect is there; this song is designed to shock you out of your senses, which is precisely what it achieves.

On the surface, 'Lament' seems like a calming of the storm, another relaxing love song. In fact, this is the love-child of the last two songs - the stricken violins from 'The Hammer Song' are there, along with the anxious delivery from Cave. But in the midst of this is the soothing, sumptuous chorus:

So dry your eyes
And turn your head away
Now there's nothing more to say
Now you're gone away

It may not be the most accomplished piece of poetry that Cave is capable of. But once again it serves its purpose. And once again, like on 'The Ship Song', we get a chilled-out fade-out to end the song.

After keeping it under lock and key for so long, the gospel gene rears its head again with a vengeance. 'The Witness Song' takes its inspiration from the American gospel number 'Who Will Be A Witness?' and the whole album suffers for it. Not only is this a confused and stupefying number on its own, but it throws the whole record off course. By dressing his performance in every clich
é of the Deep South, the entire romantic and heartfelt atmosphere Cave has painstakingly created is cast aside in favour of a quick dance. It's pathetic.

But fear not, oh ye of little faith, for this is not the end. 'Lucy' closes the album by returning to that mood. And while the recovery can never be complete after that travesty of a song, this is a staggeringly good attempt. Roland Wolf's piano is fuller and richer than Cave's, allowing him to swell and kiss the violins in the heavenmost registers. The lyrics are enchanting in their feel and in their message, when you are distracted enough to make them out. As closers go, this is right up there with the best. Even with the harmonica at the end.

The Good Son, despite its Biblical overtones, should not be seen as a concept album. Cave comes from the post-punk generation which fought to rid the world of such things, and in any case the narrative - if such a feat is attempted - is hard to discern if you don't know the story already. As a collection of songs, then, this album generally comes out very well. The gospel elements don't work, as if to prove that white musicians cannot do black music justice. But above and beyond that, it's beautiful, with some of the finest piano ballads of recent times. Above all though, this album serves as a pivot between the uber-aggressive menace of the 1980s and the calmer introspection of the 1990s. Perhaps it is best to view this album as the grandfather to The Boatman's Call (1997). This is rougher around the edges, but all the emotion, sincerity and grandeur are here, waiting to endlessly enthrall you.

3.89 out of 5

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