NICK CAVE AND THE BAD SEEDS The Boatman’s Call (Mute)

The first line on this, Nick Cave’s tenth album, runs something like "I don’t believe in an interventionist God" which is (a) not much of a surprise and (b) exactly the sort of way to get lots of Fab FM airplay, for the opening track, "Into My Arms", was indeed a spectacularly unsuccessful single release. The next 52-odd minutes, however...

"The Boatman’s Call" is not what you’d call a typical Cave album. Nobody gets killed. Well, not very many people get killed, at least. There’s almost no Old Testament ranting. The Gospels are quoted. There are songs, very many songs, in fact, about Nick’s doomed relationship with one Polly Jean Harvey, "West Country Girl" being the most obvious ("...and her accent which I’m told is ‘broad’") although you could pick up lipstick traces in almost all of the remaining eleven tracks. The Bad Seeds’ trademark satanic rattling is replaced by an almost deathly quiet, unhappy MOR backdrop, a bit like a defiled Radio 2.

Happily, "The Boatman’s Call" is possibly the best album of Nick Cave’s career so far - yes, even more glorious than the double whammy of "Henry’s Dream" and "Live Seeds", the document of the tour that followed it. There’s a touching world weariness on display, the sound of a man who has genuinely lost someone he loves, which makes even the likes of The Divine Comedy (q.v.) look crass and trite when treading (or trampling over) similar ground. "The Boatman’s Call" is an astonishingly open and honest album, just as shocking in its way as Bob Dylan’s "Sara" - remember the jaw-dropping sensation the first time you heard him croak the lines "Staying up nights in the Chelsea Hotel/Writing "Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands" for you"? "The Boatman’s Call" is riddled with moments like that. For the Zim it was a one-off, of course, and you can’t help but wonder, after placing so much of his private life in the public domain, what else he has left to give. Or what P J makes of it all, come to think of it. But as they are, happily, not us, we can just listen and marvel at the riches of one man’s articulacy.

NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS The Best Of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds (Mute)

This is a 16 track compilation presenting the best bits of Mr Cave’s career so far (he’s released ten studio albums over the course of his fourteen year stint fronting the ever-changing Bad Seeds), and like last year’s "Death To The Pixies" compilation those responsible could have simply chosen tracks at random from his back catalogue and be virtually guaranteed an album’s worth of excellence.

Even bearing in mind the fact that there’s no such thing as a bad Nick Cave tune, this best of is an astonishing listen, reminding you just how much Cave, his muse and his music have covered since the demise of his previous group, the legendary, seminal etc. Birthday Party. Early material such as "Tupelo" and "From Her To Eternity" is still chilling in its intensity and literacy, as Cave attempts to relocate his trademark old testament ranting to Mississippi ("Tupelo" allegedly being inspired by the birth of Elvis and his stillborn twin) and Berlin ("From Her To Eternity" featuring in Wim Wenders’ gorgeous film "Wings Of Desire") respectively. "The Carny" is pure Island-period Tom Waits, whilst two tracks later "The Mercy Seat" is a demonic, driving, cyclic song about a prisoner awaiting the electric chair, made even scarier by the way that, on the last of the seemingly hundreds of repeated choruses that close the song, Cave changes the words from "Anyway I told the truth/And I’m not afraid to die" to "Anyway I told the truth/But I’m afraid I told a lie".

"The Best Of.." isn’t all doom and gloom, of course, also documenting the gentler, more lyrical side of Cave’s Jeckyll and Hyde persona which offered up last year’s wonderful "The Boatman’s Call" album, whose two singles are reprised here. "Into My Arms" and "(Are You) The One That I’ve Been Waiting For" are both simple, powerful hymns to the glory of love (or, if you believe the scandalmongering, P J Harvey) that sound closer to Nick Drake than anything else released in the two decades since that singer’s tragic death. Other songs in similar vein include "Straight To You", and my fave Nick Cave track, "The Ship Song".

Naturally, provision is made for a few tracks from his commercial breakthrough "Murder Ballads", a concept that seems almost like a parody of a Nick Cave album. P J Harvey crops up in body rather than just spirit on a rendition of the traditional "Henry Lee", and that Kylie duet is also included, the sort of mad gamble that in the event did neither artist’s reputation any harm.

I could witter on about the rest of the album, but I won’t. Rest assured that every track on "The Best Of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds" merits its inclusion by being a classic of its kind, let down only by the ropiest vinyl pressing I’ve encountered in years. Scholarly sleevenotes by The High Llamas’ Sean O’Hagan complete an essential package. If you already know and love the music of Nick Cave, rest assured that your favourites are here, and the tides of time and taste haven’t diminished their impact a jot. And if you don’t, this is the perfect place to acquire the taste...from "I wanna tell you about a girl..." to "They call me the wild rose...", this is as good as it gets.

NICK CAVE AND THE BAD SEEDS No More Shall We Part (Mute)

It's been four years since the last Nick Cave long player, the quietly mighty career-besting folk of "The Boatman's Call". That album was haunted by the ghost of the singer's doomed relationship with Polly Harvey: "No More Shall We Part" draws inspiration from Cave's recent marriage, with similar candour and lack of encoding, to the extent that the listener might wonder about the consequences of art tracking life so closely. Examine "The Sorrowful Wife" as an example: "I married my wife on the day of the eclipse/Our friends rewarded her courage with gifts…the cry of the birds sends a terrible shiver/Through me and my sorrowful wife/Who is shifting the furniture around". A recent Telegraph interview with Cave revealed that he did indeed get married on the day of the eclipse, and that he finds his wife's penchant for continually reorganising the furniture somewhat disconcerting. Hmmm.

Outside of such considerations, there is much to recommend "No More Shall We Part". The Bad Seeds - rather muted during "The Boatman's Call" - crackle back on all cylinders here, and the songs are almost like a package tour of traditional Cave subject matter. "Hallelujah" is a strolling roadmovie, in which a blocked writer walks from town to country and befriends a woman, something he feels his absent nurse would strongly counsel against: I can't decide whether it's a portent of adultery or murder, but either way it plays as chilling and redemptive when the protagonist decides to turn back home. "Fifteen Feet Of Pure White Snow" is vintage Cave, laced with a cheeky lyrical steal from Little Feat's "Sailin' Shoes", where the children of the parish vanish, buried under the titular drift. "God Is In The House" is an acerbic/affectionate portrait of a little town in denial: "Well-meaning little therapists/Goose-stepping twelve-stepping Tetotalitarianists/The tipsy, the reeling and the drop down pissed/We got no time for that here/Zero crime and no fear/We've bred all our kittens white/So you can see them in the night". In the semi-famous name stakes The Dirty Three's Warren Ellis fiddles, and rather more remarkably Kate and Anna McGarrigle contribute backing vocals.

However, there's almost an overabundance of finery here. As possibly his longest album yet, stretched even further on vinyl by the addition of two extra tracks of comparable quality to the main course, it can’t be said that attention doesn't wander over the course of its 80 or so minutes, especially as the mood remains almost constantly dour and oppressive. There's none of the old rumbling thunder of, for example, "Henry's Dream" and "Let Love In", and precious little of the naked frailty displayed on "The Boatman's Call", just an increasingly sludgy middle ground that detracts from the undoubted quality of material and performance on display. "No More Shall We Part" has the potential to be another great Nick Cave album, but the programming and presentation works against it to the extent that, on one listen, you appreciate how good it is but don’t experience any nagging urge to spin it again.

NICK CAVE AND THE BAD SEEDS The Firstborn Is Dead (Mute)

NICK CAVE AND THE BAD SEEDS Kicking Against The Pricks (Mute)

From its rolling thunderstorm opening, "The First Born Is Dead" is Nick Cave resplendent in full-on Old Testament fire and brimstone mode. There's real bloodthirsty vitriol here, a slashing savagery to both music and lyrics as Cave carves out legend from the Bible to the blues, that makes some of his recent albums look sleepy in comparison. The pummelling tarantella of "Tupelo" is an acknowledged Cave classic, the Bad Seeds carving an edgy, elbows-out rhythm as the preacher man rants about the birth of Elvis filtered through a half-remembered John Lee Hooker song. It reminds the listener just how much "The First Born Is Dead" is an album seeped and soaked in blues mythology - possibly more so than any other in the man's catalogue and, ironically enough, a malformed distant cousin to P J Harvey's "To Bring You My Love". But it also seems to map out a cruder but not dissimilar vision to Bob Dylan's "Love And Theft", a travelogue of 20th century popular musics that scratches diseased claws across gospel ("Train Long Suffering", an out-of-control death trip jumping the tracks with caller Cave on board, whipping responses out of his congregation of Bad Seeds), folk and country simultaneously ("Wanted Man" is a Bob Dylan song that Johnny Cash recorded, or nearly enough) before screeching to a halt back at the blues again ("Blind Lemon Jefferson", with its slow, brooding strangulation by guitar and last gasp harmonica). But, naturally, this is no reverential Smithsonian museum piece: throughout The Bad Seeds scrape and gouge away like musicians with a price on their collective heads, creating a cataclysmic explosion of cankerous music and debased legend. There are several finer Nick Cave albums, but none whiten the fingertips quite like this one.

"Kicking Against The Pricks" (the title is of biblical derivation: Acts 26:14, look it up!) is a somewhat less visceral offering, being a collection of covers originally released in 1986. Many artists have attempted albums of interpretations of popular song - think Bowie's "Pin-Ups", Costello's "Kojak Variety", Dylan in career-sabotage ("Self Portrait", "Dylan" a.k.a. "A Fool Such As I") or acoustic doomsayer ("World Gone Wrong", "Good As I Been To You") modes, George Michael's "Songs From The Last Century" - but to my ears nobody in the rock era has emerged from such a venture with an effort comparable to the quality of their regular work. Cave's contender is no disaster, but equally it's not an essential purchase either. He tackles a typically doom- and gloom-saturated series of songs with near funereal respect, with the Bad Seeds mostly kept on a cabaret-tight leash behind him, resulting in an album that scarcely catches fire, even during a breakneck tumble through The Velvet Underground's "All Tomorrow's Parties". Perhaps it's something to do with the overwhelming sense of expectation that inevitably attends when a visionary songwriter like Cave (or Bowie, Dylan, Costello or even George Michael) lets himself loose on the his peer group's efforts, which usually makes the finished product a curiously underwhelming experience. Even at its best ("By The Time I Get To Phoenix", and possibly the loungetastic arrangement of "Something's Gotten Hold Of My Heart") there's something pallid and undernourished about "Kicking Against The Pricks", which no album with a title like that by a band like this should ever be.

NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS Abattoir Blues/The Lyre Of Orpheus (Mute)

As far as statements go, this is the big one. In the double-album-that’s-really-two-single-albums-packaged-together style pioneered by Lambchop’s “Awcmonnoyoucmon”, “Abattoir Blues/The Lyre Of Orpheus” presents seventeen new songs over two discs apparently divided only by drummer – Jim Sclavunos on the more obviously rockist “Abattoir Blues”, Thomas Wydler on the comparatively restrained “The Lyre Of Orpheus”. Together they make for what is probably the most complete Nick Cave album in over a decade, since the puzzlingly underrated “Henry’s Dream”.

Yes, there have been some fine Nick Cave albums in the intervening years, one of which, “The Boatman’s Call”, might prove to be his most lasting work, but they’ve generally restricted themselves to a narrow conceptual focus. Who could honestly claim to be surprised or shocked by the content of “Murder Ballads”, for example? Here, though, he covers all imaginable bases, from sulphurous old testament hectoring to cautionary fables via the mysterious majesty of love. There’s something amorphous about these albums, something uncharted about the way his lyrics seem to evoke nature, religion and love, often simultaneously, fused as if along some seamless continuum. Wrapping them around some of the most gloriously addictive music of his career doesn’t exactly hinder acceptance either.

The full-throttle octane overload of opener “Get Ready For Love”, for example, almost disguises the way it’s about spiritual, rather than physical, ecstasy, the London Community Gospel Choir making the first of their many appearances here. Cave spins sharply from the bloody gospel of “Cannibal’s Hymn” to the subdued, stricken, swaying funk of “Hiding It All Away”, songs that should rightly be worlds apart yet can be found rubbing right up against each other here. “There She Goes, My Beautiful World” is one of many similarly disarmingly ambiguous songs: coming on like a demonic preacher hopped up on some kind of carnal quest, closer examination of the lyrics reveals the Cavester to be addressing his own well-publicised writer’s block, calling down his elusive muse.

Much of “Abattoir Blues” is red-raw rock ‘n’ roll steeped in mysterious tales and meaningful lyrics, this edge of armageddon desperation tethered by music of kaleidoscopic scope and seduction – “Nature Boy”, for example – and the odd, not entirely expected, flash of humour, the dark lord claiming the last laugh with the title track’s “I woke up this morning with a Frappucino in my hand”.

“The Lyre Of Orpheus” opens with the titular lament, its stringed-instrument-terrorises-the-elders scenario oddly reminiscent of Rush’s “2112”. But did Geddy Lee ever solemnly intone lyrics like “Orpheus sat in his garden shed”, “God was a major player in heaven” or “I’ll stick it up your orifice!”, and if not why not? A delightful cacophony of recorders, sounding like an unruly school orchestra, assaults the ears at the opening of “Breathless”, its ebullient naivety perfectly complementing a lyric full of bubbling brooks and gambolling lambs. It’s less a love song, more a serenade to Mother Nature. Despite its title, “Babe You Turn Me On” is only marginally more carnal, as during this gentle waltz Cave pretends “I’m a little deer/Grazing on the flowers”. “Nick The Stripper” it is not, quite. The slow-rolling, haunting “Easy Money” could be a blurred and ambiguous response to Patti Smith’s “Free Money”, perhaps.

“Supernaturally” is The Dave Brubeck Quartet’s “Take Five” gripped by a powerful fever, riding roughshod and out of control. “Spell” and “Carry Me” both take a deep plunge into that whirling vortex of nature, love and religion. Whilst “O Children” might initially seem like a low-key exit from such a substantial work, at least until the choir swoop in, it begins with the request “Pass me that lovely little gun” and doesn’t get any brighter through its eight verse struggle for redemption.

If Saint Nick actually had hits then these would surely be the greatest; it’s certainly the most Nick Caveof his albums. All that detracts from my enjoyment is the gently distorted, congested sonics of the British vinyl pressing. Otherwise, “Abattoir Blues/The Lyre Of Orpheus” is a heartbreaking work of staggering genius, so good he named it twice.

NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS B-Sides & Rarities (Mute)

Within minimalist packaging – a stark, glossy black box embossed with silver type, containing three CDs housed in individual card sleeves – “B-Sides & Rarities” gathers up a mammoth 56 tracks. It forms an alternative history from the offcuts and detours of the Cave back catalogue, these songs having previously appeared on free singles with albums, flexidiscs given away with magazines and sold at concerts, tribute albums, radio sessions and film soundtracks.

Disc one opens with a brace of crackling acoustic takes. “Deanna” seamlessly morphs with The Edwin Hawkins Singers’ “Oh Happy Day” in an arresting collision of the carnal and the cerebral. “The Mercy Seat” prefigures Johnny Cash’s rendition, although, where the latter is the work of a frail, broken character, here Cave retains a measure of the original’s grasping theatricality. “City Of Refuge” is utterly transformed into a gospel number, Nick testifying like an evangelical snake oil salesman.

It’s something of a jolt when the next track, “The Moon Is In The Gutter”, rewinds the timeline by six years, when the Bad Seeds were playing a more diffuse kind of nightmare cabaret, closer to the ranging, stalking sound of Cave’s previous band, The Birthday Party. Similarly, the atonal guitar jangle and whistling of “The Six Strings That Drew Blood” suggests some kind of b-movie noir, and a cover of Roy Orbison’s “Running Scared” could be a David Lynch soundtrack compressed into two minutes. Leadbelly’s “Black Betty” is attacked near-acapella, and the very unpretty “Scum” demonstrates a scattershot elasticity, a sulphurous river of vitriol.

As the flip side to “The Ship Song”, perhaps Cave’s greatest achievement, “The Train Song” is almost as emotive and elaborate. In fact, there’s little here that doesn’t stand up to the closer inspection it will inevitably now receive. The standard of songwriting is as high as that found on proper Bad Seeds releases, Cave rarely treating his b-sides as mere space-filling exercises or excuses for unleashing indulgent experimentation. However, “Cocks ‘N’ Asses” is an exception, being six wasted minutes of sinister non-song atmospherics. Equally, a knockabout cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Tower Of Song” recorded, with painful irony, for the tribute album “I’m Your Fan”, is not a high point, lurching between thrashing rock, country and western, “Rocky Horror Show” parody, sheer noise, wheezing harmonica sections and Elvis impersonation. Like a car crash, you can’t help but slow down to gawp at its astonishing wrongness. In stark contrast, a stately version of Neil Young’s “Helpless” is magnificently lonesome.

The second disc opens with Cave’s appropriately heartwarming Christmas single duet with Shane McGowan, “What A Wonderful World”, on whose egalitarian b-sides Nick interprets “Rainy Night In Soho” and Shane responds with “Lucy”, someone his elegantly wasted woozy croon particularly suits. Recorded for an unreleased compilation of Australian country music cover versions, the witty “There’s No Night Out In The Jail” (written by the apparently abandoned-by-history John Harold Ashe) snares the Bad Seeds as a bar band, punctuated by the clank of bottles. “That’s What Jazz Is To Me” is, according to the terse but helpful sleevenotes, an “improvised piece”, worth a quick novelty snicker but nothing more.

“The Willow Garden” might be familiar from Art Garfunkel’s excellent solo debut “Angel Clare”. It’s far to say that Cave outpaces Arthur in the murder ballads stakes – but then Art didn’t have Warren Ellis’ thin, wheeling violin circling like crows above the scene of Rose Connelly’s untimely demise. “The Ballad Of Robert Moore And Betty Coltrane” begins amiably enough with cascading waterfalls of piano, but with this being a 1995 Nick Cave track proceedings inevitably become cankered in this tale of bigamy and bloodshed.  A Kylie-less “Where The Wild Roses Grow”, replete with Blixa Bargeld’s gently Teutonic guide vocal, is, with its dark pools of unrest and threat, an even more unsettling proposition than the released version. Unfortunately, a Radio 1 session take of “O’Malley’s Bar”, its 18 minutes divided into three parts and a reprise, rather over-eggs the pudding, although Cave hams it up gloriously throughout, relishing the crazed serial killer role even more than on the “Murder Ballads” album. There’s also some twisted amusement to be derived from contemplating that, although his repeated part-bridging howl of “They shot him in the motherfucking head” is censored for the airwaves, the song’s graphic, bloody trail of destruction is allowed through unimpeded. The doomy Dirty 3 collaboration “Time Jesum Transeuntum Et Non Riverentum”, previously hidden away on the “X-Files” album, touches on the mournful, sighing strings often deployed by Godspeed You Black Emperor!, highlighting more of Warren Ellis’ mournful, smoky-toned violin, but a version of “Red Right Hand” recorded for “Scream 3” rather overemphasises the plot points with its Hollywood orchestration, undermining the wiry terror of the original.

The final CD is perhaps the least interesting of the three. By the time of the period it describes (1997 to 2004) The Bad Seeds’ sound had evolved to a polished efficiency, and the shocks and surprises of their early work had diminished accordingly. Which isn’t to say that these songs aren’t good, they’re just a little predictable. On “Little Empty Boat” and “Right Now I’m A-Roaming” Cave tentatively lets some of his demons out on a leash, and a band version of “The Boatman’s Call”’s “Black Hair” is great, even if it sounds a little leaden against the original. “Babe, I Got You Bad” shatters the encroaching calm with glorious abandon, a raucous, sloppy mess of jangling guitars and Cave’s eloquent leer of a vocal. “Grief Came Riding” and “Bless His Ever Loving Heart” were not that unfamiliar to me, being bonus tracks on the vinyl edition of “No More Shall We Part”, perhaps extending that album’s stoic heft a little past breaking point. The fluffy gospel fervour of “Good Good Day” presages last year’s mighty “Abattoir Blues/The Lyre Of Orpheus” double, and the elegant “Everything Must Converge” suggests the end of a journey approaching. The gentle optimism of “Nocturama” sounds like a gothic reimagining of Teenage Fanclub’s “Norman 3” – pretty mushy by Cave’s standards! – and “Under The Moon” is suffused with a joyousness, maybe even a contentment, that his music has perhaps only lately learned.

There’s a great deal to chew on here, but there’s also a deal of greatness. An album equally suited to the devotee and nervous newcomer, that this density of fine material has been quietly hidden from mass consumption for so long makes it all the more remarkable.