Sunday, April 9, 2017
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Henry's Dream (1992)
I used to write and spend a lot of time in libraries. I had a predilection for getting in trouble later evolving into high art, but I spent more time at seventeen parked at a wooden library cubicle surrounding by weighty tomes of poetry, biographies, and ever present pens and notebooks where I scribbled significant details about long dead heroes I deemed my Gods and blabbering poems where I attempted to find their measure.
I read magazines too. Musician, Spin, Goldmine, and Rolling Stone ranked high among those. I wanted to read biographical articles, interviews, reviews. Seventeen years old in the early nineties, pre-Internet in a Midwestern college town, meant Rolling Stone’s review section carried a certain cachet others lacked. The brand held a strong allure. This looking back on those days may not constitute a portrait of an artist as a young man, circa 1992, but I still have notebooks from those days twenty plus years later. Make of that what you will.
I had a long history with Rolling Stone too. I spent most of my time engrossed at the magazine and book rack when my parents went to the grocery store. Lou Reed. David Baerwald. Procol Harum, Chris Whitley, and Neil Young. Rolling Stone, between 1989 and 1992, introduced me to those artists and many more thanks to some well written positive reviews. I think they were, usually, David Fricke reviews. One review leaving a mark on life for years to come proved to be a write-up on Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds’ Henry’s Dream.
I learned later that David Briggs produced the album. Briggs, sound-meister of Neil Young’s albums with Crazy Horse, is a big reason why the album endures with me as an unheralded young masterpiece. A low hanging darkness and the smoke of conflict hangs over the album’s nine songs and much of the blame for that can likely be laid at the feet of a fiery relationship Briggs shared with Cave and the band. The coarse, jagged edge Briggs’ work lent to the ragged glory of his work with Young and Crazy Horse, cut deep into this collection and left a lasting mark.
The opening one two punch of “Papa Won’t Leave You, Henry” and “I Had a Dream, Joe” are dizzying. The first track rides a wave of propulsive acoustic guitars and Cave’s apocalyptic street corner preacher raving a travelogue of gory horrors. The language is pared down, rhythmic, and solidly concrete. The second song, “I Had a Dream, Joe”, is rousing in spite of itself, but its exhortation submerged with blackly humorous parody. The musical structure follows the same general idea we hear in the opener – the Bad Seeds used as an acoustic orchestra, of sorts, and it comes across with breath-robbing power. “Straight to You”, certainly the closest thing to a commercial moment on this release, is one of Cave’s better love songs to this date and he crouches his devotion in the sort of specific, if not cataclysmic, language defining much of his songwriting. “Brother, My Cup Is Empty” is a blistering masterpiece packing power far beyond the wattage of most songs. Cave’s seething vocal, fatalistic and defiant, inflame great lyrics with the full flush of performed poetry and the band steamrolls any resistance with an unified and energetic workout.
“Christina the Astonishing” is quite unlike anything else on Henry’s Dream. The muted hymn-like arrangement enormously benefits from Cave’s vocals. It quickly takes on an uniquely elegiac quality. The lyrics’ narrative strengths are considerable and the same talent for specificity helping earlier songs stands out and serves this track particularly well. Even a cursory listen to this song doesn’t suggest, initially, that it grows with you over time. You can credibly argue, thanks to personal preference, Henry’s Dream is front loaded with substance and sags during the album’s second half. Smarter listeners will hear diversity. “When I First Came To Town” successfully mimics traditional balladry in a sort of Grand Guginol fashion, akin to a more tempered “Para Won’t Leave You, Henry”, and there are certain decisions along the way reinforcing those musical choices. Cave’s spectral, distorted harmonica in the song’s second half is a superb touch. “John Finn’s Wife” has an enormous capacity for musical drama it doesn’t exploit until late in the track – there’s some lasciviously obvious touches in the songwriting, but Cave’s writing, vocals, and idiosyncratic vision makes this work as an explosively modern take on traditional music. It also hints at future directions with albums like Murder Ballads.
The album’s final two songs, “Loom of the Land” and “Jack the Ripper”, are radically different numbers. The former of the two is the stronger song and its deliberate pace sets a perfect stage for some of Cave’s finest, measured writing on the entire album. There is a certainly a melancholy quality surrounding the song, but it makes for one of the album’s more affecting moments. “Jack the Ripper” is heavy-handed Strum and Drang ultimately signifying nothing, but Cave does an appropriately leering job aping a small basketful of blues clichés. It isn’t an inherently terrible track, but seems lightweight in light of its predecessors. No matter. This gave birth to a lifelong admiration abiding to present day. I found a home. A wife, kids. I write at a desk now instead of a library cubicle but thank Rolling Stone for having the good sense to favorably review this album a long time ago, in a place far away. I am still listening a quarter of a century later.