Nick Cave’s rep is, on the surface, quite dark. He’s been called many things; the Godfather of Glum, The Sheik of Bleak, The Prince of Darkness (well actually, I made the first two up, but tell me you wouldn’t start using them…). Regardless of all that, the man is a bard. Not THE bard, but he is a bard. And a very good one.
Today he turns 59, and we’re celebrating with this list. Whether you’re a big fan or just a casual listener trying to work out what all the fuss is about, these are the essential Nick Cave songs.
For your convenience there’s a Spotify playlist below.
‘Red Right Hand’, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds have always had a knack for the nightmarish, and ‘Red Right Hand’ is perhaps the best example of this. First appearing on Let Love In in 1994, ‘Red Right Hand’ is about as scary as a song can get. Gothic church bells clanging, a catastrophic plan, designed and directed by his red right hand… chills.
Versions of the song by both Arctic Monkeys and PJ Harvey also made our list of best Nick Cave covers.
‘Into My Arms’, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
If ‘Red Right Hand’ is one end of the Cave spectrum, ‘Into My Arms’ is the other. This is piano ballad perfection. A tale of religious differences overcome by the divinity of love, ‘Into My Arms’ is simply the best love song ever written.
“I don’t believe in the existence of angels/But looking at you I wonder if that’s true/If I did I would summon them together/And ask them to watch over you.”
‘No Pussy Blues’, Grinderman
Great songwriters have a knack for making you feel like every song they write is about you. Who can say, hand on heart, that they’ve never had the no pussy blues? Grinderman was a majestic beast with a short lifespan, helmed by Cave and his iconic offsider, Warren Ellis. ‘No Pussy Blues’ sums the band up; uncouth, loud, brutally honest. Plus, look at that mustache…
‘Stagger Lee’, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
Much of Cave’s songwriting relies on the development of characters. ‘Stagger Lee’ (or Stagolee) draws inspiration from an American folk song of the same name. Its history is tough to track accurately, but one thing is certain; the murderin’, brawlin’, swearin’, sodomizin’ Stagger Lee is, indeed, a bad motherfucker.
‘Henry Lee’, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds feat. PJ Harvey
Like ‘Stagger Lee’, ‘Henry Lee’ borrows pretty heavily from a traditional folk song. Nick Cave teamed up with the inimitable PJ Harvey and they delivered their own haunting and unique version. Of course, this wasn’t the only time Mr. Cave teamed up with pop royalty, but PJ > Kylie and Henry Lee > Where the Wild Roses Grow.
‘Nick The Stripper’, The Birthday Party
The Birthday Party was Nick Cave’s first band (although technically they released their first album under the name Boys Next Door) and they only knew real success within the post-punk scene of the 80’s. However, they did offer us a pretty good insight into how weird shit was about to get.
‘Shivers’, Boys Next Door
Speaking of Boys Next Door, their biggest and best song before changing names was ‘Shivers’. Written by the band’s guitarist Rowland S. Howard when he was only 16, the track was Nick Cave’s first big break outside of the underground music scene. It now holds an important place in his back catalogue as an earlier indicator of what that incredibly unique voice and delivery would go on to achieve. It is still regarded as one of the best Australian songs of all time, and has been covered by the likes of Laura Jane Grace (of Against Me!), Courtney Barnett and the Screaming Jets.
‘Straight to You’, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
‘Straight to You’ was one of the Bad Seeds’ most commercially successful releases, and with good reason. It’s less of an acquired taste than some of their more dramatic work, following a more linear structure than, say, ‘Tupelo’ or ‘Nick The Stripper’… but it rolls and swells in a way that keeps it burrowed deep in your brain long after you hear it.
‘The Ship Song’, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
‘The Ship Song’ is as much a hymn as it is a Bad Seeds song. A choir, an organ, Cave’s baritone voice and the climactic way in which the song has been composed all allude to something higher. But again, the thing that makes this song is Cave’s way with words.
“Your face has fallen sad now/For you know the time is nigh/When I must remove your wings/ And you, you must try to fly.”
‘The Ship Song’ is eye stinging in its beauty.
‘Deanna’, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
‘Deanna’ is a ripping song. It channels rockabilly and surf rock vibes in every sense; from the call and answer refrain, to the production on the track. Nick Cave isn’t known for his foot tappers, but this one goes beyond that. It’s a hip shaker. Ohhhh Deanna!
Nick Cave has been writing and releasing music for about 40 years, and good lord has he covered some ground in that time. His latest album, Skeleton Tree, is up there with his most emotive releases, but it’s too soon to call it essential.
Happy Birthday, Nick. We salute you.