Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Tender Prey LP


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The period leading up to and culminating in the making of Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds' fifth studio album, Tender Prey, was a profusely fertile time for all the individual band members, overloaded with so much peripheral creative activity and personal turmoil that the entire long process of recording and mixing the album was encompassed by tumult. Inaugural recording for Tender Prey took place on September 7, 1987; the last remaining mixes were completed on March 14, 1988.

Cave was deep into his novel at the flat he shared with Die Haut bassist Christoph Dreher on Dresdener Strasse in Berlin's Kreuzberg district, when the embryonic form of what would become "The Mercy Seat" first came to him. Scribbling on an open pad next to his typewriter, Cave wrestled with the lyrics over the next several months, the epic literary sprawl of his novel subtly seeping into the song as he labored over them both simultaneously. "The Mercy Seat," Cave recollects, "...felt like something that I was writing in the way that I would write a novel, as opposed to writing a song." Thomas Wydler remembers Nick "worked his ass off," but at that particular point he simply wasn't applying himself to songwriting. Focused primarily on his novel, Nick recalls that the song that would in time come to be recognized as one of his signature compositions "...just kind of leaked through the cracks."

When the opportunity to commence recording of Nick's slowly wrought opus finally presented itself, The Bad Seeds chose to return to the familiar grounds of Hansa Studios, the pride of their adopted hometown of Berlin, the same studio where they had recorded Your Funeral...My Trial and The Firstborn Is Dead. The grand main recording room at Hansa, with its superb acoustics, was originally a Nazi ballroom, and the control room had served as a sauna for a while; but by the time The Bad Seeds began working there, it was already regarded as a studio of prodigious importance. Irrespective of that, Hansa was a natural choice for the band: in addition to being comparatively less expensive than roughly equivalent English studios, the laissez-passer security policy suited their lifestyles. "At that time, the Hansa studio was an open gate, 24 hours." Wydler remembers. "People came in, speed freaks came in, friends came in, dealers came in. Everybody came in!"

Aside from "The Mercy Seat," Nick did not have many lyrics ready to go when the band entered Hansa to begin basic tracking for the songs that would eventually comprise Tender Prey. According to Mick Harvey, in those days it was not unusual for Nick to do a lot of writing in the studio itself. "On the early albums he would come in and he wouldn't have many sets of lyrics, actually. He'd sometimes be in the back room scribbling away." With Cave caught up in the writing of And The Ass Saw the Angel for so long, it is hardly surprising that he entered the Tender Prey sessions armed with almost no words.

Uncharacteristically however, Nick did bring aboard a lot of instrumental passages he had composed on the piano at Dreher's flat. "What was surprising," asserts Mick, "was that he had so many pieces of instrumental music that he'd written. It was a bit of a new thing: he'd written all these piano tunes. It's quite strange actually. I can't remember him ever having done that before (or since). I'm not sure where that all came from, especially these long pieces like ‘Slowly Goes the Night'; it was very unusual for Nick."

Although Nick had lyrics ready to go for "The Mercy Seat", the song had not yet fully taken shape. Nick attests that he sat down in the studio piano and devised a descending chord structure and "...that I was able to sing the words to those chords. Then Mick threw in the E minor – B flat vamp." However, rather than starting with the piano, recording of the basic tracks for "The Mercy Seat" actually began with a loop which Mick says "came out of the same idea that Nick had been trying to do for ages: he wanted to have a song that was really relentlessly at you and in your face." Nick affirms he was aiming for an aggressive rapid-fire machine-like effect similar to the churning rhythm of "Harlem" by Suicide, "...but we didn't know how to do that, so we did it with drumsticks on the open tuning of the bass." Other songs from the original Hansa sessions include "Slowly Goes the Night," "Up Jumped the Devil," "Sugar, Sugar, Sugar," "City of Refuge" and "Lucy." 

The multi-track layering method frequently employed by Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds on their first five studio albums was used to fit songs together piece by piece, constructing them out of fragments and tentative ideas until a cohesive composition gradually appeared. Compared to a more conventional multi-tracking approach where overdubs are layered over a predetermined groove and a rigid structure, early Bad Seeds recording methods sometimes appear to have been conducted almost as an aleatoric hunt for a song.

Moreover, Nick believes that though Tender Prey, as an album, was "kind of scattershot," as with its four predecessors, it "gave birth" to and suggested manifold possibilities. "I think some of our later records are probably better records, in the sense that they're played better, some of the songs are more fully realized," explains Cave, "but they feel to me in a lot of ways like closed entities. Maybe that's being unfair, but the earlier records are all suggesting ways forward. There's a questing feeling about some of them."

If Tender Prey is an album searching for something in a lot of different dark places, literally and figuratively, it is unclear if it actually found what it was looking for. Nick admits, "There was a huge amount of chaos around the making of some of these records. Tender Prey was very much like that - and not only in the way the songs were put together. There's a real seat of your pants type feel to everything, which is wonderful about the early Bad Seeds records."