Nick Cave spent much of his time with The Birthday Party spoofing the over-stuffed gothic-rock groups of the late ’70s and early ’80s, but with Your Funeral…My Trial, the fourth studio album by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, the joke went over everyone’s head. It is an album so utterly without light that it might as well have been recorded underground. And yet, all these years later, it is somehow still one of Nick Cave’s most enduring and accessible records.
By 1986, Nick Cave had successfully transitioned from fronting a band widely hailed as one of the most, chaotic, destructive and downright violent live acts in the world, to helming one of the most enduring. Following the demise of The Birthday Party in 1983, Cave relocated from his native Australia to a cold and concrete-clad West Berlin. In the midst of an all-too-familiar smack habit, Cave and the band released a series of albums with increasingly sinister titles; beginning with The Firstborn Is Dead (1985) – heavily influenced by the Southern gothic writers – and working their way up to the comparatively jolly Kicking Against the Pricks (1986).
Cave’s popularity was growing all the while and was finally galvanised with the release of 1986’s Your Funeral…My Trial, an album that conveys, not the phoney melancholy pushed by many of the goth-rock outfits of the time, but something unflinchingly, unspeakably dark. It’s all there in the second track, ‘The Carney’; a song which seems one half ink-black sludge and one half vaudevillian nightmare. It forms the centrepiece of a record which, when prised open, reveals the kind of meticulous rig of miniaturised cogs that are found under the wooden lids of children’s music boxes. According to producer Flood (Mark Ellis), the rest of the album suddenly revealed itself when Cave began work on ‘The Carny’ in the early days of production in Berlin’s Hansa Studios – the same studio that birthed David Bowie’s masterpiece, ‘Heroes’.
“I remember Mick Harvey arrived in the studio with the guts of an old grand piano, that was the basis of the sound,” Cave once recalled. “It was just the strings, attached to a metal frame. He tuned certain notes and used a guitar plectrum to pick the notes. It then ended up as ‘The Carny’. That was the first day of recording Your Funeral…My Trial, and that kind of set the tone for the whole record.”
For some, the sound of Your Funeral… My Trial was utterly unpalatable. For others, it was a gift. Despite the fact that Cave had used his time with The Birthday Present to launch a series of, what he described as, deliberate piss-takes on goth-rock bands, in a somewhat ironic turn of events, Your Funeral…My Trial was celebrated by the goth scene and went on to inspire a whole new generation of bands who held Cave’s maudlin blend of avant-rock in high regard.
Looking back it is a record that seems to foreshadow not only the rise of exploratory, guitar-based genres such as shoegaze – which in the UK was already emerging out of the trails of feedback left by The Jesus And Mary Chain – but also something Cave would return to time and time again in his own career: the twisted love ballad. In ‘Stranger Than Kindness’, for example, Cave sings: “You caress yourself/ And grind my soft/ cold bones below/ Your map of desire.”
In these words, the constant push-pull between death and sex that defines the material on Your Funeral…My Trial is clear as day (or dark as night, depending on your preference). And it is that duality that makes even the most harrowing of Cave’s vignettes strangely tender, perhaps even joyful. So while it might sound gnarled and embittered on the surface, once you’re safely inside this bizzare, intricately-crafted music box of an album, you’re sure to hear the gentle throb of a beating heart.