I do sometimes wonder if I’m a bit of an uncritical, umm critic when I’m rhapsodising over the last LP by Metal Beelzebub & The Bums (on blue vinyl) or that obscure 12″ of Love me, Love Me Despite My Urgent Financial Difficulties that meant so much to me at university. I do tend to overuse the word ‘love’ a bit when I write about these records. Well, in my own defence I will say that I am only reviewing records I own and with the odd exception where I’ve bought a complete turkey and not traded it for something else, there’s usually a reason I bought it and it stayed in the first place; if you gave me a random selection of music to review you might get to know 7351, my utterly evil alter-ego and critical critic.
All of which serves as a bit of a warning that I’m heading off to planet love-in with the next LP of mine, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds Henry’s Dream. When I was at university the music press loved Nick Cave and gushed so much over him that I decided, without hearing a note of course, that he must be crap*. Which is why I only got into this 1992 LP in 1995 when a less-moronic friend of mine prevailed upon me to listen to it. Within a minute of the first track I had a new hero, by the end of Henry’s Dream I had two.
Even today the first track, ‘Papa Won’t Leave You Henry’ just floors me with how brilliant it is. When I first listened I was expecting a barrage of aggressive noise and shouting, I’d heard stuff by Birthday Party, and so I was very pleasantly surprised by, well I’ve always had a real problem describing the music of The Bad Seeds. There are definite country elements in there, but there’s bits which are almost hymn-like, rollicking campfire sing-alongs, bits which are thrashy and bits which sound like a supremely warped Irish show band to me. So having wrapped all that up, we’re left with the lyrics. Now much as I love a rollicking tune, I’m big on lyrics and Nick Cave writes the best I can think of since Dylan got soft, Costello mellowed and Dio passed. Add his highly literate, highly visceral lyrics, to an awesome delivery – whether in lovey-dovey, or in raging mentalist mode, and you get, to my mind, an unbeatable combo. Who else do you know who could write, let alone deliver,
Well, I thought about my friend, Michel
How they rolled him in linoleum
And shot him in the neck
A bloody halo, like a think-bubble
Circling his head
And I bellowed at the firmament
Looks like the rains are hear to stay
And the rain pissed down upon me
And washed me all away
and that’s before the song gets angry. I’d very happily print all the lyrics here and lecture you on them like some two-bit media-studies professor, but I’ll resist that temptation, as well as that of the ‘wet-lipped women with greasy fists’, although possibly the latter because I know what it inevitable leads to**. But who can ever resist a call-and-response vocal?
What I particularly love here, even amongst all the many other facets of Henry’s Dream that I love, is the manner in which every song here unfolds like a short story, all set around some unimaginably lusty, lawless outback town in the back-end of beyond. It resonates with me like a sociopathic remix of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, set to a fabulous score. All the songs feature characters, which again increases the enjoymentabilityness of it for me but these are not the doomed junkie models and high-cheekboned urbanites of Lou Reed, these are dangerous, dirty-handed farmers and layabouts, small-town madmen and you guarantee that every femme is pretty damn fatale; oh apart from ‘Christina the Astonishing’, who was a 13th Century saint.
Amongst all the dangerous wandering loners dragging a burdensome dark past behind them, for whom, ‘there is always one more town / A little further round the bend’, we get one of my favourite Nick Cave love songs ever, ‘Straight to You’.
The light in our window is fading
The candle gutters on the ledge
Well now sorrow, it comes a-stealing
And I’ll cry, girl, but I’ll come a-running
Straight to you
No idea why it affects me so much, it just does. Possibly because it forges such a real sense of resigned devotion, counterpointed by a big, major-key optimistic tune^, it never fails to tug my heart strings. Of course it barely pauses before crashing us into the aggressive drunken ‘Brother, My Cup is Empty’, the narrator coming over like tooled-up Ancient Mariner desperately needing some marriage guidance counselling,
I wished that I could watch her die
To see her accusing finger spurt
To see flies swarm her hateful eye
To watch her groaning in the dirt
Far be it from me to use the word ‘counterpoint’ twice in one life time, but …
Look, I’m more than I fan here, I’m an unapologetic zealot as far as Henry’s Dream is concerned, every track here is a feast, which is no mean feat given that it appears to have had a fairly troubled genesis – the band not gelling well with long-time Neil Young helmsman, David Briggs. I’d happily tell you that every track on this LP is my favourite and mean it too. I do reserve special praise though for ‘John Finn’s Wife’, a cautionary tale of what not to do when tempted beyond reason by a raven-haired temptress with ‘legs like scissors and butcher’s knives’ and when ‘a gang of garrotters were all giving me stares’ – SPOILER ALERT: make sure you have your brass knuckles and bolo knife on you at all times.
Henry’s Dream is rarely touted as being one of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds best LPs, critics always seem to prefer Let Love In, which doesn’t get me as excited. If you’re a fan, listen to this one again – it’s worth it and if you’re not, this would be a damn fine and rather poetic place to start.
And the wind it bit bitter
For a boy of no means
With no shoes on his feet
And a knife in his jeans
* File under ‘Fuckwit, Youthful’.
**an in-joke for anyone who knows the song: an insufferable dollop of small-minded smugness, for anyone who doesn’t.
^Check it out musicologists, check it out!