Albums compiling B-sides and demos are a bit like VH1 behind-the-scenes specials; their most compelling feature — other than occasional diamonds in the rough — is the chance to catch a glimpse into a band’s or artist’s often bizarre musical tastes and indulgences. We get to see an artist’s dark side. When that artist is Nick Cave, the Aussie prince of gloom who was formerly in Birthday Party and has been the surly leader of the Bad Seeds since 1984, it’s healthy to find that prospect more than a little frightening. What had we been hearing all these years if not thirteen albums’ worth of dark side?
On the question of weirdness, Cave’s B-Sides and Rarities does not disappoint. Sprawling over fifty-six tracks and three discs, the record proceeds chronologically and quickly devolves into some strange shit. After several acoustic versions of early Bad Seeds songs (including terrific renditions of “Deanna” and “The Mercy Seat”), the covers commence, with varying results. A hoarse, mournful take on the traditional “Rye Whisky” is stunning, a desperate death march that has Cave’s voice straining like Joe Strummer’s and cracking with grief. Two tracks later, however, the singer defiantly slaughters Leadbelly’s “Black Betty” in a performance that even the most hardened devotee would struggle to sit through.
But like any B-sides album, this one should be forgiven at least most of its excesses for the resource it provides the serious fan. This is particularly true on the second disc. The unconvinced aren’t likely to become otherwise, but this section is a treasure-trove for the enthusiast, with Cave and the Pogues’ Shane MacGowan taking turns covering each other’s songs; with a charmingly hokey rendition of Chad Morgan’s Australian country lament, “There’s No Night Out At the Jail”; with the haunting “Time Jesum Transeuntum Et Non Riverentum” (a hidden track on a 1996 X-Files soundtrack); and with recordings from radio sessions; and with several other previously obscure cuts.
Unlike the first two, the third disc actually sounds like an album, a pleasant surprise for a compilation organized by chronology. Containing mostly B-sides from Bad Seeds records since 1997, it’s a tender, remarkably cohesive set and should serve as a reminder that Cave has grown into a wise — dare we say mature? — songwriter, one fast approaching Leonard Cohen territory. Each track resonates as though pulled from a dark, deep well. The production is tactfully unfussy, mindful not to tread on the record’s somber beauty. That is, up until the second-to-last song, “She’s Leaving You,” when Cave summons every musician in the room and starts singing about hookers. Only then, satisfied that he’s reminded us he’s not a softie, can the artist close things out with a chipper tune about kissing under the stars.