A Musical Journey with Nicklas: Part 10 – Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Your Funeral… My Trial – 1986
Here is my dilemma with Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds. When I try to pick their best song(s) it’s almost too close to call. I mean … how do you choose between such masterpieces as Tupelo, The Mercy Seat, Deanna, The Carny, Loverman, From Her To Eternity, The Weeping Song, Saint Huck or Jack the Ripper, to name but a few. And that’s not even taking into account the magnificence of the covers like the chilling interpretation of Scott Davis’ In the Ghetto that knocks the socks off of Elvis Presley’s – or any other – version, mainly due to Blixa Bargeld’s insanely haunting slideguitar, the brawly version of Bob Dylan’s Wanted Man, the furious rendition of Leadbelly’s Black Betty, the painfully slow intensity of Hey Joe … I could go on but I think you get the idea.
However when it comes to full albums there are only two that emerge as irrevocable favourites and unquestionable masterpieces: the dark madly passionate Let Love In and the haunting Your Funeral… My Trial.
Neither of those were my first contact with Nick Cave. His 1988 album Tender Prey holds that honour which effectively means that the very first Nick Cave song I ever heard was The Mercy Seat and that is – as I think any Nick Cave fan would agree – indeed a tough act to follow. However as an album Tender Prey didn’t exactly impress me but it was more than enough to make me very curious and to understand that The Bad Seeds had moments that were strong enough to forgive a lot weaker moments. It has to be added that most of those weaker moments are still usually stronger than most album. And it’s not just The Bad Seeds. The same dynamics apply to Nick Cave’s two previous bands: The Boys Next Door and The Birthday Party which are essentially the same band under different names but that’s a different story.
The real kick in the head would be the second Nick Cave album I bought: Your Funeral… My Trial. It was right there when Long Time Man was running on the last few grooves and the crash faded away – enthralled by the darkly haunting yet strangely warm and fuzzy mood that envelopes the odd little stories of death, love and obsession that was Nick Cave’s forte, with images of the bizarre gallery of characters with Boss Bellini as the most memorable – that I truly understood the greatness of “The Caveman” and his pack of rabid dogs, kept on a very short leash, that when unleashed are like pack of frenzied wolverines or a shoal of blood-thirsty piranhas. Just listen to the barely controlled raw energy as Hard On for Love goes into the second chorus, and then again as it goes in for the final chorus.
The album opens with the yearning but somehow creepy love song Sad Waters about the innocence of first love and seduction that with a radically different arrangement could probably have graced Bruce Springsteen’s magnificent album The River.
Next we are told the bizarre story of “a horse, all skin and bone. A bow-backed nag that he named “Sorrow” that creeps you out with a wicked lingering smile and the silhouette of “boss Bellini waving his smoking pistol around” against the cold light of a full moon just before the rain comes hammering down. And lingering like a whisper in the wind, Blixa Bargeld’s chilling delivery of boss Bellini justifying the killing of “Sorrow”: “The nag is dead meat. We can’t afford to carry dead weight.” The effect cannot be described in words it has to be experienced.
I don’t know exactly when I began to feel that the songs on the album somehow connect into each other to tell a story that goes above and beyond the songs themselves but to me it makes perfect sense that the narrator – whom we can for obvious reasons call Jack – and his woman Mary fall in love across the barrier of some unmentionable taboo. I’m not actually suggesting any form of incestuous relationship – even though it would not be at all implausible – more like a barrier of class or perhaps even of complexion since to my mind the story has to take place in the Deep South.
Faced with the rejection of their love by the community in which they live the young couple decide to make a run for it and does so by joining up with the carnival and some time later the heat of the relationship comes to a cathartic clash ending in murder – although we are not told about this until at the very end of the story. This is a very literary method of storytelling to leave a crucial moment remain hinted but never shown until at the very last moment. And if nothing else Nick Cave is a highly literary songwriter.
In the song that follows the story of how poor Sorrow was laid to rest in The Carny we are told of remorse and regret and return in the album’s title track as the narrator returns to his beloved Mary’s grave after the funeral party has gone away. This is also where his internalised trial begins and … maybe I should leave you to figure out the rest for yourself, so as not to give away the ending or spoil the “surprise”.
Besides … it’s not my place to relate a story that shapes itself over time within the listener’s aural/neural pathways. That story can only ever be my own interpretation of the album. I can’t even say for certain that an underlying connecting storyline was ever actually intended by Nick Cave even though I wouldn’t be surprised if in some way it was.
However I think this sensation that the songs all link together simply comes from the fact that Nick Cave is perhaps one of the best lyricists out there as well as his obsession with old delta blues and the men and women that lived it, real or mythical. This is of course also where his obsession with so-called murder ballads originates.
For those of you who are not familiar with the “genre”: A Murder ballads is a thematic song based around the story of murder and violent death real or mythical, quite often told from the first person perspective of the murderer, like for instance Long Time Man which concludes this fabulous album. But also in a call and response style like – perhaps the most famous murder ballad of all times – Hey Joe, which incidentally two persons – at least – claims to have “written”. One of whom also wrote Long Time Man. Long Time Man can actually be interpreted as being the first person account of the events preceding Hey Joe.
While murder ballads are generally traditional and have their roots in mediaeval ballads going back as far as the mid 17th century it was through the early 20th century blues/folk singers that they were repopularised and found their way into the modern era.
Nick Cave has almost invariably had at least one murder ballad on his albums with The Bad Seeds, leading up to the full blown tribute to the genre on his Murder Ballads album.
Your Funeral… My Trial is a dark and intense album that twist, turn, bend and brawl like thorns of roses and poison ivy beneath a sheet of soft warm velvet. UhHuh. It’s just like that. Uncompromising danger hidden underneath unrelenting beauty and the deeper you allow yourself to be submerged into the music and the mythical world of Nick Cave’s twisted and often subconsciously violent stories that flow through it the more you risk getting stung and burned. And it is a world well worth spending a fair amount of time in. Not just with this album but The Bad Seeds as a whole. At least up to The Boatman’s Call album. After that it all starts to go a bit iffy and doesn’t quite meet the expectations.
Maybe that all depends on where you first hopped on the train. I dunno. But for me that is where I start to lose touch with The Caveman. True there are still a few moments of greatness but the weak moments have become much Much weaker and the moments of greatness can no longer make up for them. I can’t help thinking that this decline in musical quality must have something to do with the defection of Blixa Bargeld whose guitar was such a defining element of The Bad Seeds’ sound just as Rowland S Howard’s was for The Birthday Party.
Nick Cave sort of managed to reinvent himself with Grinderman but even that sounds a bit done. It lacks the same passionate intensity that graced the early Bad Seeds albums and the Birthday Party albums even though the intentions of trying to recreate something to that effect with a band that isn’t really new, all members of Grinderman are former Bad Seeds members. The problem is essentially the same as with the latter Bad Seeds albums. It lacks that uique touch provided by either Blixa Bargeld or Rowland S Howard.
Grinderman is not bad as such and neither are those latter Bad Seeds alums I guess. It’s just below par for Nick Cave which I suppose means that they are probably still good enough to blow away most of the stuff out there.
The YouTube clip below is taken from the cd and contains the bonus track Scum which was released as a flexi-single the same year as Your Funeral… My Trial.
Av: Nicklas Ekström, Landskrona