Covers albums are usually the province of stalwart musicians whose inkwells have been drained to such an extent that the drought seems like a catastrophic by-product of global warming or otherwise the sort of soul singers who could lend their pipes to the shipping forecast and make it scintillatingly soar. They are not usually reliable engines of creative impetus for bands still escaping the shackles of their previous escapade – in this case, The Birthday Party – and trying to cement an identity within the whirling technological geyser of the mid-1980s and the mixed-up artistic milieu that the flooding synth-sedation had spawned.
The Bad Seeds were just coming off the back of their debut, From Her to Eternity, and the blues-based follow-up The Firstborn is Dead. Blixa Bargeld had recently been welcomed into their ranks, and the drummer Thomas Wydler was making his first appearance. Their opening statement as a new entity that was looking to rattle the awful samey-ness of the era into submission was to cover the seventies bluegrass band The Seldom Scene and their track’ Muddy Water’. If this was indeed ‘a statement’, then its message was as unfathomable as the famous analogy of “when the seagulls follow the trawler.”
However, now that the illuminating light of hindsight has basked the record in the glow of the rest of their unfurling back catalogue, it is clear that they are not really a band in the business of doing anything other than chasing down their bolted muses. In this case, it is obvious that they were still settling into the vein of sonic exploration and coupling it with profound character that they continue doing to this day. As Cave told Rolling Stone ten years on from its release: “It allowed us to discover different elements, to actually make and perform a variety of different sorts of music successfully. I think that helped subsequent records tremendously.”
In short, that explanation makes a covers album almost seem like an obvious choice. They were, after all, a new band, and like all new bands, they were starting out with covers. It just so happened that they were a new band doing it on a larger scale than a garage packed with old bikes and patio furniture, and rather than have a few complaining neighbours as an audience, they garnered the acclaim of an ever-growing following.
The triumph of the record resides in the fact that their sonic odyssey – through various eras and genres of music – is not the self-indulgent sort of feet-finding that leads bands to a boardroom-like discussion about the manufactured ‘originality’ that they can bring to the songs; while simultaneously tailoring them to their own sui generis mutating physique.
The results are most shining on tracks like ‘Something’s Gotten Hold of My Heart’. The Gene Pitney pop aria is the sort of song that has been subsumed into classic radio to such an extent that it barely seems like a song now; it’s like the musical equivalent of cornflakes. However, Nick Cave and his cohorts transcend the malaise that comes with being ever-present and somehow twisted it into something gut-wrenching and vibrant.
Moments like this are plentiful on the album. It’s one that wallops the listener into compliance. You might not be sure exactly what it is doing, or even why, but you’re glad it’s doing it, as they upcycle the old with a new infusion for the rest of us mindlessly consuming sinners. Ironically, it now might seem slapdash in parts, but it almost seems like that weakness would’ve been one of its strengths upon release as a sort of artistic splurge that swam against the tide or rather kicked against the pricks.