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Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds: Henry’s Dream (1992)

June 26, 2012

nick cave and the bad seeds henry's dream artworkRoll: 1-9-8
Album: Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, Henry’s Dream

This may be only the second or third time I’ve listened to Henry’s Dream all the way through. The first time was on a Sony Discman that plugged into the cassette deck of my ’85 Chevette. I have a dim recollection of driving down the evergreen-lined highway being vaguely disappointed. Since I bought the album in the middle of my headlong dive into Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds‘ back-catalogue—I was actually moving forward through the band’s discography having begun with From her To Eternity after seeing their cameo in the film Wings of Desire—I wasn’t too upset. I had plenty more to devour. But at times I remember even being cringingly embarrassed for The Bad Seeds on that drive home.

Two tracks in and I’m remembering just why that might be.

The vocals on “I Had a Dream, Joe” is definitely what Simon Cowell would call “pitchy.” Not just Nick Cave’s singing but the entire ensemble’s. Normally I’d champion anything that even might be something Cowell wouldn’t appreciate but it appears to not true in this case.  It’s almost  unlistenable. And off-kilter vocals aren’t even something that’s new to the band—almost their trademark, in fact.

I think the problem is the singing is marginally more on-key than the wheezy warble Cave exhibited on The Good Son (1990). All the performances here (not just the vocals) feel just the slightest tiny bit off instead of genuinely over the moon terrible.

I mean “terrible” in a really good way, of course. Cave’s shtick has always seemed an artistic attempt to be ramshackle on purpose. But maybe that wasn’t the case and he’d always been striving for something a little more polished.

The Good Son (and songs off earlier albums as well) had already hinted at Van Morrison ambitions, but it came off as a demented version of the Irish balladeer’s folky blue-eyed soul. Here Cave seems to be taking an honest shot at the prize and drifting somewhat shy of the mark. The band would later hit this bullseye on albums like The Boatman’s Call (1997) and No More Shall We Part (2001) with alacrity, but he and his Bad Seeds weren’t quite there yet on these sessions.

Nor are they playing to their previous strengths either. Those strengths being a particularly noisy, vicious and dissolute approach to an aesthetic you might call “American gothic”. Perhaps not as dissolute as Birthday Party or noisy as Einstürzende Neubauten, but compared to Tom Petty or John Mellencamp, they were practically a southern rock version of hatchet wielding cannibals.

Henry’s Dream lacks that kind of grit.

And it’s an album that desperately needs grit. Especially on a track like “Brother My Cup Is Empty” which is begging for more bombast than it’s been given. The Good Son was probably their quietest album to date—legend has it was a reaction to the blood and excess of Tender Prey (1988) and the decadence of the accompanying tour—but its cabaret-inspired material suited the approach. Here the concept and execution seem out of sync with one another. The uptempo gospel-informed songs are about murder, poverty, alcoholism and despair but you don’t hear any of those themes within the music.

Especially despair which is the most conspicuously missing element.

In hindsight, Henry’s Dream plays like a notebook of ideas that would get fleshed out later. “John Finn’s Wife” might be the template for the entire Murder Ballads (1997) concept album and  “Straight To You” might be the prototype for classic Nick Cave love songs like “Into My Arms”.

In this way—even more so than The Good SonHenry’s Dream is the classic transitional album taking the band out of the rusty post-pun junkyard and placing them on the stage of a grandiose theatre full of red velvet and gold filigree. Though they do regain some of the old piss and vinegar on later albums, they’ll never approach anything like “From Her To Eternity” or even “Mercy Seat” again (even under the guise of Grinderman).

Ultimately Henry’s Dream is a collection of ideas the band had executed—and would execute again—better on other albums.

Footnote: Interestingly, in writing this review I discovered I somehow no longer own a copy of The Good Son. Perhaps that’s not interesting to you, but it’s damn interesting to me. I’m not sure how this came about and I feel I need to rectify the situation.

On the other hand, it’s obviously an album I haven’t missed at all since at least 2007 when I sold off a sizable portion of my collection to facilitate moving across the country (I must have sold it then forgetting I’d already sold all my Bad Seeds vinyl). It’s moments like these when a collector’s Faith is shook.

If I’m feeling so indifferent about a pretty decent album by one of my all-time favourite artists, then what possible justification do I have for hanging on to albums by middleweight bands like Violens or Mahogany? And especially bands like The Horrors who are arguably cheap Nick Cave knock-offs. Though at times they might do it better then he does himself these days, especially on that Cat’s Eyes album.

And I clearly don’t care much for Henry’s Dream so why lumber myself with it? One could speculate upon a scenario where I trade in my Henry’s Dream for a copy of The Good Son which I will never actually listen to.

For that matter, what are the chances I’ll actually listen to Cat’s Eyes again? And is collecting records ever really about listening to music? And is there anything wrong with that? Or is there anything right about it? Why do we bother to get up in the morning to go to work so we can afford to buy more records? Why does anyone bother about anything? Why?

I think feel a cull coming on. 

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4 comments

  1. for collector to cullector


  2. I have a feeling my brother stole my first born cassette cuz they were playing lollapauzla and he wanted to be in-the-know. maybe he stole your copy too.



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