Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - The Firstborn Is Dead - Classic Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - The Firstborn Is Dead

by Kevin Orton Rating:10 Release Date:1984-06-03
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Firstborn Is Dead
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Firstborn Is Dead

Back in the day, NME Journalist, Mat Snow notoriously spilled the beans on this album. Apparently, Snow was privy to an advanced tape owing to his past championing of the Birthday Party & the Bad Seeds' debut, From Her To Eternity. Snow apparently was so beside himself to write an "advance" review. Only problem was it was a bad review. The key word being, "Disappointed". Not the best idea considering Cave was a former roommate. Snow was later rewarded by having a special song dedicated to his honor, ‘Scum’. (see Your Funeral...My Trial).

I mention this only because Snow's opinion pretty much has cast a pall on how this album has been perceived over the years. To this day, many fans and critics consider it to be The Bad Seeds' least appealing record. Personally, this was my introduction & it packed a punch. The sonic equivalent of a pair of brass knuckles coming at you in slow motion. Without a doubt, it left a lasting impression. And you're talking to a reluctant convert here. Hilariously enough, while I was a fan of the Birthday Party in the mid 80’s, we didn’t have the internet back then. So, ridiculous as it sounds, I didn’t know Cave was actually the Birthday Party’s front man. When introduced to Cave, I pretty much wrote Cave off as a 2nd rate Punk imitation of Jim Morrison with delusions of grandeur. Then a good friend pointed out it was the same guy from the Birthday Party. So, I immediately picked up The Firstborn is Dead for no other reason than I liked the cover art. One listen to the contents and my conversion was complete. I had never heard anything quite like this. And being a big Elvis Presley fan since childhood, I couldn't help but recognize the satire and homage going on in ‘Tupelo’, the album’s opening track.

With ‘Tupelo’, Cave and company perfectly capture the restless paranoia preceding a hard rain about to fall. A lot of ink has been shed on it being about the birth of Elvis. And it is. Presley was a twin, whose brother was stillborn. Thus, the album title. Its also in reference to John Lee Hooker's 'Tupelo'. So if its an ode, its an off the wall one to both Hooker and Elvis. I'd also say its a bit of a satire on the unfounded importance some place on their Rock idols. Anyway, that’s how I took it in part. The point is, this stuff isn't meant to be taken literally. Perhaps allusion is the more operative word. These aren't songs of personal confession so much as character driven narratives.

Keeping that in mind, ‘Say Goodbye To The Little Girl Tree’ is a disturbing piece. Its protagonist wanting to "bind your maiden mainstem just to keep you as a child". But instead of the typical murder ballad, our hero hangs himself rather than defile. A dark, but complex moral tale to be sure.

‘Long Train Suffering’ tips its hat to Presley's "Mystery Train" ripping the iron off the rails while ‘Black Crow King’ is a cautionary tale on the perils of believing one's own press. Its chain-gang refrains & gavel percussion echoing a never-ending sentence. As for ‘Knocking On Joe’, has there ever been a prison song that's captured the monotony and ennui of an incarcerated life more? Our hero so desperate, he’d rather take a hammer to his hands than spend another day at hard labor atoning for his sins.

One wonders why Dylan gave permission for Cave to cover let alone re-write ‘Wanted Man’ but perhaps he recognized the irony expressed. A vengeful reply to all those wanting a piece of you. A cover that makes Johnny Cash’s version sound tame. Having heard many a version over the years, including Dylan’s own bootlegged take, Cave’s stands above all others as definitive. This is how one covers a song, by treating it as if it were your very own. 

‘Blind Lemon Jefferson", closes the original album, and perhaps the Bad Seeds stumbled on a whole new genre here: Ambient Blues. A grim, atmospheric send off.

Later cd reissues also include an essential in ‘The Six Strings That Drew Blood’. A warped, slowed down rendition that in my opinion, surpasses the original on the Birthday Party’s Bad Seed/Mutiny release. Other cd re-issues have been known to also tack on the B-side ‘The Moon Is In The Gutter’. A song cut during the From Her To Eternity sessions but one that feels at home here with the rest.

In terms of "Americana" this album was way ahead of its time. And a thousand shades darker and more over the top than later self-consciously “Alt Country” fare. In 1985, no one was doing anything remotely like this. Completely out of step and out of time. Sparse and lugubrious, The Firstborn is Dead is an unforgettable fistful of Southern Gothic dementia.

Can you tell I love this album? Challenge yourself with it and you're sure to be rewarded. A dark, funny and brave record.

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