Nick Cave is one of my favourite, favourite musicians: a dark crooner, a twisted lyricist, a rogue magic-man. But the guy's been making music for over four decades, so it can be hard to know what of his extensive backlog to listen to first.
Before I dragged off one of my buddies to see Nick Cave talk at the Southbank Centre, I made him a playlist of 10 classic Cave songs to give him a taster. I'm sharing here in case you're also Cave-curious and don't know where to begin.
Of course, this list in no way purports to be objective or even particularly representative of his expansive body of work (not a single one of his soundtrack collaborations with Warren Ellis!) - they're just songs that I like, and why I like them.
Red Right Hand
Quintessential Cave. A dark and brooding tale of a very creepy man... BUT, PLOT TWIST! The creepy dude is God. The phrase "red right hand" comes from Milton's Paradise Lost and the joke is that if you take some religious beliefs literally, the God they're describing is pretty terrifying.
No Pussy Blues
At some point in the 80s Nick Cave grew a moustache and couldn't get laid for a while. He wrote this song about it. That's really all there is to this one 😹
This is a taste of the heavier rock & roll/punk sound of his early career.
Do You Love Me?
This is the best of the Cave subgenre I'd call "twisted love songs". A song about the pain of knowing you love someone more than they love you. Fun to pair with Loverman (same album) which is like this song's darker mirror image.
From the album "Murder Ballads", which is pretty Johnny Cash-ish, full of American folk story-stongs about murderers in the Wild West. Stagger Lee is deliciously grisly, about a "bad motherfucker" going on a killing spree. In the live version, Cave adds a final verse where the devil comes to collect his soul and Stagger Lee shoots the devil too, just because he's that much of a badass.
On the night Elvis Presley was born (in the Mississippi town of Tupelo) there was a terrible flood, and his twin brother died in childbirth. Cave tells this story in a way that makes Elvis's coming feel apocalyptic: "the beast it cometh, cometh down". Some deliciously dark, Biblical lyrics in this one. ("Well Saturday gives what Sunday steals / And a child is born on his brothers heels / Sunday morn and the first-born dead / In a shoebox tied with a ribbon of red").
This is 2000s Cave, once he'd mellowed out a bit, pure Gospel. To me, it feels like a song about regretting the mistakes of your own generation, and hoping that the next one makes better choices. Relatable.
The Ship Song
A song about love that destroys you, in the best way. I'M NOT CRYING, YOU'RE CRYING.
This is from the album Push the Sky Away (2013), which includes repeated mentions of the CERN collider and the Higgs boson (the "God particle"). I read "Jubilee Street" as being about the hypocrisies of some aspects of organised religion (told from the perspective from a sex worker in Brighton), in contrast with the pure transcendence of direct spiritual experience.
Cave often closes his live acts with this song. Usually, by this point, he's pulled about 50 people on stage and everyone is weeping and holding each other, like an evangelical revival. The song builds and builds, and by the end where he's yelling out, "I'm transforming, I'm vibrating, look at me now..." it feels like the whole crowd has become a single organism vibrating with his music. It is honestly one of the most transcendent spiritual experiences I've ever had.
This is the title song from the album he wrote about (and to) his son Arthur, who tragically died at age fifteen. It's stripped bare, musically, unornamented, and it sounds like a prayer to Arthur's ghost. Heartbreaking.
I've left off some of what I think are his best songs (The Mercy Seat, The Carny) because they're a bit... weirder. But if you enjoy this playlist, those are the ones to try next!