“Nobody wanted to make a blues record. So we made a record that was steeped in the blues but didn’t really have anything to do with the blues on a musical level,” Nick Cave recalled of the Bad Seeds’ second album in 2008.
The Firstborn is Dead
is an achievement as remarkable as it was ambitious. The idea of an Australian post-punk group recording an introspection of the Deep South in 1985 wasn’t as far-fetched as it would seem today, with Led Zeppelin’s blues-derivatives a reassuring precedent. Still, it seemed a risky goal given the easy iconography that the South offered. Observers in the Bad Seeds’ Berlin studios must have wondered if these skinny Aussie punks were stepping into unattainable territory.
Working in the band’s favour was the geographical distance that they could use to distinguish their writing. Cave and Mick Harvey, refugees from the break-up of The Birthday Party, were Australian while Barry Adamson was British and Blixa Bargeld, nicked from Einstürzende Neubauten, was German. They were all capable multi-instrumentalists and in Cave they had the baddest cat in Australian music. He was about to establish himself as the country’s finest songwriter as well. Firstborn’s
language came out of the notebook Cave had built up in Berlin. He showed uncharacteristic restraint, allowing him to pack more into single images like “death-writ”, “burden” and “black rain” than he would manage in his later death obsessed songs.
The band was determined to sidestep ‘traditional’ blues sounds and structures in order to explore and recreate blues mythology. ‘Tupelo’ and ‘Wanted Man’ aside, each song here is tangled, lean and sparse even when the volume gets cranked up. Cave’s plantation hollers amid chain gang chants on ‘Black Crow King’ absorb the fear and oppression of John Lee Hooker or Charley Patton as the sound avoids familiarity.
“I was reading a lot of William Faulkner and these southern American writers,” explained Cave. For ‘Wanted Man’, you can add Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash to that list. The tale of a gunslinger running out of places to hide and ready to shoot out the Devil is a romanticisation of the South’s violent origins. There is also a sense of order – of the actions, necessities and tough simplicities of badland life – that Cormac McCarthy readers could pick up in ‘Knockin’ on Joe’ and the frantic ‘Train Long Suffering.’
Cave began writing the novel ‘And The Ass Saw The Angel’ during the recording of ‘Blind Lemon Jefferson’ as a tribute to the titular ‘father of the Texas blues.’ That song, ironically, is Cave’s most back seated performance. What is instead tangible is the swampy midnight tension and silent heat in Adamson’s ominous bass and Bargeld’s greasy, ghostly slide guitar.
Then there was the terrifying ‘Tupelo’, the band’s most epic creation to date: over Adamson’s brutal loop and Harvey’s relentless, tribal drum attack, Cave summoned his most savage vocal, linking the 1936 tornado attacks on the south eastern town Tupelo to the birth of Elvis. The simultaneous uncontrollable destruction and legendary creation is typical of The Firstborn is Dead
, an album that dared to not only recreate the blood lines of rock ’n roll but do so by reduction and deconstruction.