Ed. note: Musician/composer/enigma Nick Cave evidently doesn't believe in taking time off. Less than a year after a sold-out tour with the Bad Seeds in early 2013, he announced Live From KCRW, the band's fourth live album, due out Nov. 29, aka Record Store Day. But thanks to Cave partnering with SF Weekly and a handful of other weeklies around the U.S. for a special invitation-only web press junket, we're excited to help premiere "The Mercy Seat" and "Mermaids," two new tracks from Cave's fourth live album, available for download as of this morning right here. You'll also find a special 24-hour pre-sale for tickets to the band's summer 2014 tour, including the July 7 show at the Warfield. Yet another result: this first-hand account of the event from SF Weekly's Sam Lefebvre.
Nick Cave sits in front of a backdrop depicting the cover of Push the Sky Away, last year's 15th album with the Bad Seeds, and he's very hungry. After likening songwriting to childbirth, he shifts restlessly in the seat and says, "Can you hear that, sound man? That's my stomach rumbling." He smirks, "You can edit that bit out," and makes a scissor gesture across the camera with two fingers. The grim balladeer and love song lecturer wants a banana, but settles for a croissant. He needs a napkin, too. It's a web conference, a high-tech press junket, and it clashes with a romantic image many of us have of Cave furiously scribbling fiery narratives of spiritual tribulation in tattered notebooks. Presumably, it's intended to consolidate Cave's press interactions into a single session, yet the steady camera focused on the intimidating artist eating a croissant actually humanizes him.
Donned in blue and black pinstripes, the prolific Australian artist responds to dozens of pre-submitted questions from American journalists about his planned 2014 U.S. tour and forthcoming album, Live From KCRW. Recorded earlier this year, the Bad Seeds' latest live album uses Push the Sky Away's nuance and Cave's maturing voice to imbue 10 songs with renewed vitality and significance. The session features Warren Ellis, Martyn Casey, Jim Sclavunos, and Barry Adamson in addition to Cave, a significant departure from the massive ensemble and choir touted at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium last April.
Responding to a question about his voice, Cave says, "My famously individual intonation is better. Sometimes I actually hear myself on stage and it sounds almost enjoyable to listen to, rather than filling me with absolute horror as it has most of my career." With its restrained instrumentation, Live From KCRW highlights his vocal versatility. A deeper rendition of "Push the Sky Away" charges the hazy atmosphere with terror, while back-up vocals and marimba on "People Ain't No Good" emphasize the tension between Cave's severity and humor.
In the Tender Prey version of "The Mercy Seat" from 1988, Cave alternates between understated speech and fierce proclamations. On Live From KCRW, he mines the vast range of vocal expression in between. His more dynamic singing explores the infinitely complex emotions of a condemned narrator reckoning with imminent execution and the problem of justice when nothing is certain.
As he says, "I believe very much that [songs] have a life of their own, that they have an intelligence about them beyond what their creators gave them." He continues, "There are songs that seem to have so much meaning bubbling underneath the surface of the words that they just regenerate themselves." Cave's supple reworking of old material creates new narratives. There's the arc of a story within the song, and a broader arc of shifting meanings as Cave continuously reinterprets his own material. The Bad Seeds steady his hand and together they pull back a song's veil to uncover new dimensions. Live Seeds, Live at Royal Albert Hall, The Abbatoir Blues Tour and now Live From KCRW capture enthralling scenes from the strange lives of Cave's songs.
The perception of Cave as an utterly serious creature grappling exclusively with death and redemption is at odds with the man on a computer screen whose grumbling stomach is amplified by a lapel mic. Yet, lately, Cave harnesses the tension between trivial details of modern life and the black world of his songs to great effect. On Dig Lazarus Dig!!! he startled everyone by referencing a Frappuccino. The poster inside Grinderman 2 depicts the band relaxing in gladiator attire with copious Starbucks cups scattered about. The small audience present for the Live From KCRW show audibly giggles when Cave sings about Miley Cyrus in "Higgs Boson Blues." Cave's voice is changing and his songs evolve in perpetuity. Evidently he's advancing a singular sense of humor too. As in, wouldn't it be funny if Nick Cave sat down and frowned at a croissant while countless eager journalists stare? In hindsight, it certainly was.