When Nick Cave debuted in 1978, it was as the sallow, possessed frontman of the Birthday Party, gothic shock troops from Australia with orders to antagonize England’s petrified punk circuit. Bad timing. Soon after these brutes arrived in London in the early ’80s the national appetite turned to glitzy synth pop, something better suited to the megabucks mood of false optimism that greeted the early days of the Reagan-Thatcher years. The Birthday Party splintered in 1983, leading Cave to form what would become his longest-running band, the Bad Seeds, a group that had little in common with the chipper New Wave of the early MTV era. The Bad Seeds crafted a creepy fusion of American roots music and European experimentalism, as if the Elvis who grew up on country blues had been force-fed astringent Modernist operas during his Army-sponsored vacation in West Germany. And like New World bluesmen and Old World composers, Cave dealt in the kind of romantic myths in which someone invariably winds up on the slab.
Cave’s basic intransigence helped him survive the 1980s; albums like From Her to Eternity (1984) and The First Born Is Dead (1985) found him peeling back the soft belly of the era’s pop to get to its darker pleasures, a musical David Lynch with the brimstone tone of Cormac McCarthy. In 2003, after more than a dozen albums studded with coal-black observations on male-female folly, Cave and the Bad Seeds released “Babe, I’m on Fire,” fifteen minutes of electrified holy-roller gospel shaking down a deconsecrated church. The song’s lyrics are little more than a catalog: Cave spins one jolting description of some strange, supernatural or just plain seedy character after another, like the “demented young lady who’s roasting her baby.”
Halfway through recounting this rogues’ gallery, he slips in a seemingly throwaway jibe about an “old rock and roller with his two-seater stroller,” a self-deprecating in-joke at the expense of this father of twins. But rock has always found domesticity somewhat complicated. Embracing the traditional responsibilities that come with age tips over the wobbly (if entertaining) fallacy that you can be an angry young man in perpetuity. Acknowledging that you’re growing old in your music while retaining some of rock’s youthful energy is a precarious business. This was especially true for someone whose early persona was the louche thug winking his way through foul play, as with the infamous gallows humor of the Birthday Party’s “Six Inch Gold Blade,” in which he stuck the titular knife “in the head of a girl.” Even after Cave traded the barbarous comedy of the Birthday Party for the graver, more adult voice of the Bad Seeds, he hardly came off in song like the kind of guy who took the kids shopping at Whole Foods on Saturday morning.