Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Tender Prey

Tender Prey (1988)


1. The Mercy Seat 2. Up Jumped The Devil 3. Deanna 4. Watching Alice 5. Mercy 6. City Of Refuge 7. Slowly Goes The Night 8. Sunday’s Slave 9. Sugar Sugar Sugar 10. New Morning


Rick Rubin is easily one of the most overrated producers ever – he spends most of his time working on mediocre albums by already-established artists. As far as I’m concerned, his greatest accomplishment since leaving Def Jam is manning the producer’s chair during the creation of one of the rarest of all musical phenomena: a good Mick Jagger solo album (Wandering Spirit back in 1993) – which, I’ll admit, is a pretty impressive feat. But I’ll give credit where credit’s due – he did a great job choosing songs for old man Johnny Cash to cover on the American Recordings series. And I must say, Cash and Nick Cave’s “The Mercy Seat” turned out to be a hell of a good fit on 2000’s Solitary Man. But not even the Man in Black could change the fact that nobody in the history of music could ever nail “The Mercy Seat,” Nick Cave’s signature song, quite like its composer. As a tale about a guy being led off to the electric chair, its exploration of a condemned man’s psyche is absolutely riveting, and can be delivered, and received, in a number of different ways. In Johnny Cash’s hands, it became a personalized and pointed, if smoothed over, lament that evenhandedly implores the listener to sit down and have a good hard think about the death penalty. With the Bad Seeds, such insignificant wastes of time as politics and normal human emotion don’t even enter into the proceedings. Instead, harsh piano chords, thundering bass notes and dementedly sawing violins accompany Cave’s protagonist on a wicked steam engine barreling straight toward the gates of hell as he sees Jesus in his soup, ponders his fate and steadfastly holds to his innocence, even his head begins to smoke. It picks up speed at a chilling pace as Cave belts out the refrain over and over and over again until it’s sure to bore an imprinted mark into your frontal lobe. And then, finally, at the moment when you’ve been pummeled so intensely for so long by this song that you’re sure your head is going to pop, he finally cops to his crime: “I believe I told a lie.” Justice.

Fortunately, Tender Prey manages to transcend the “it’s the one with ‘The Mercy Seat’ on it” designation that it was destined to be saddled with. How? With hooks! Big, fat, juicy ones! We’ve certainly come a long way from From Her To Eternity, which barely had one real vocal melody to speak of… now Nick and the boys are capable of writing at least a half dozen choruses that will get instantly stuck in your head. But just to make sure they get lodged in there real good, they’re going to repeat them as many times as they possibly can. No other song here is quite as extreme in its repetition as the last four minutes of “The Mercy Seat,” but a few certainly take some inspiration from the Energizer Bunny. Why not, when they’ve got hooks as meaty as those found in the galloping “City Of Refuge” (“You better ruuuuun! You better ruuuuun! You better run to the city of refuge!”), the darkly debonair “Up Jumped The Devil” (“Dowwwwn we go!”) or the loooong dirge “Mercy” (“Have meeeercy on meeee!”). Some pop hooks work best when applied economically, and some when used liberally – chalk these tunes up under the latter designation.

The first six tracks are just about flawless – erstwhile unmentioned treats include “Watching Alice,” a piano ballad so pretty it may take you a couple of listens to realize that the protagonist is not in a dreamy, devoted romance with Alice but is in fact a creepy voyeur, and the Cave live favorite “Deanna,” a hopped up bubblegum/gospel rocker that is probably the most imminently loveable Nick Cave song for Joe Schmo classic rock fan. But there’s a noticeable drop off in quality after that. Only “Sugar Sugar Sugar” gets me a-boppin’ like the stuff on the first half (though I’m still waiting on the sequels “Sugar Sugar Sugar Sugar” and “5ugar”), and the way-too-long comatose lounge singer bore “Slowly Goes The Night” is not an offense I’m willing to forgive anytime soon. But Tender Prey does manage to touch on just about everything that can be had from most classic Nick Cave records all in one place. Piano ballads! Rock songs! Incredible lyrics about death and lust and religion and shit! Blixa and his funny German accent on backing vocals! What more could you want? Perhaps this album doesn’t represent the pinnacle of certain forms that the Bad Seeds have mastered in the years since, but it does represent an opening of new horizons and a solid foundation for just about everything they’ve done in the two-plus decades since.

One more thing: is it just me or does Nick have a unibrow thing going on up there on the cover?

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