First Born Is Dead

Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds

Mute Records, 1985

REVIEW BY: Graham Drennan


The concept holding First Born Is Dead together is the lifecycle of someone special; a diety, a messiah, a Christ; and the inevitable turbulence which will be manifested within the cycle. The album opens with a thunderburst and a downpour of thick, heavy rain - flooding the land ("Tupelo"), and ends with a storm and the dying moments of "Blind Lemon Jefferson." Like all Cave's work, religious imagery is central to the concepts and characters held within - hence the title. The storm is ever present, always in the life of the characters - from the child molesting monster of "Say Goodbye To The Little Girl Tree" - to the resignation to suffering of the hopeless inmate of "Knockin' On Joe", and the loner - the outcast of "Wanted Man". The Devil is on the heels of everyone, looking back is not an option - they must always move forward - the past is sadness and despair, the future promises no redemption; there is always a desperate foreboding in this world and the next.

"Tupelo" is the start of the storm ("A Big Black Cloud Come"). A song which sets out to redefine Elvis - mixing the Presley myths, with Old Testament myth - essentially providing an explanation as to the very lifecycle of the King. It allegorizes Elvis as the messiah, left to carry the burden (by force of fate) throughout his years in this mortal coil. Cave's work is always based on a grander scale than most; from the outset Cave believes in a grand scheme, people do not make their own destinies - fate predetermines. The bloated Elvis, languishing in kitch 70s Vegas, a joke, a junkie - a figure of fun, slashing his soul open for the entertainment of the paying public - not there to watch a performance - but to witness a once proud national hero debase himself for their pleasure. Cave's song gives us insight into what burden the King was carrying and the forces of fate being the primary instigator -

Saturday gives what Sunday steals /

and a child is born on the brothers heels /

Sunday mornin the firstborn dead /

with a shoebox tied and a ribbon a red

Like Christ himself, the King had a cross to bear - he spent his whole life coming to terms, trying to comprehend the hand which fate had dealt him. Someone like Elvis was always going to be special, he never asked for it - Now do you understand what you did to Elvis?my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

"Say Goodbye To The Little Girl Tree" is the epilogue of a desparate man, who has developed an obsession with a young girl. Unlike most rock standards dealing with such a subject - Chuck Berry and"Little Queenie," Rolling Stones and "Stray Cat Blues," which glamorize the sleaziness of underage women, celebrate it even - Cave resists this. However sickening they may be, Cave's character does have feelings. Cave acknowledges the desparation and deep rooted torment a man in such a position must be feeling. "I rise up her girl child lumps and sliping knots / into her laden boughs" interjects Cave, as the Character relises that the little girl is more important and pure than he, who is decayed and evil. Although giving little detail to the background of his character, Cave manages to reveal enough - a broken down, lonesome reprobate - left to roam an uncaring and contradictory world - like Martin Blanchard in Bukowski's The Fiend. He knows he cannot remain here after knowing this girl, he is resigned to his fate. Cave's character wants the girl to stay as she is - he can't harm her - she is too special, too precious - "With this silver hoop of wire / I bind your maiden mainstem just to keep you as a child" - the character can only keep the memory pure by bringing his own existence to an end.

Some believe Cave to be the most mysoginistic songwriter around, personally I think to hold this opinion is to not understand where he's coming from - why not try listening to the words?

Anyway - moving on we have "Black Crow King":A portrait of Christ (or a would be Christ) dying on his cross, crowned in thorns, alone as the storm rolls in. He is no hero now, the greatness has left him, he is naked - his followers have gone. "My shadow's made of timber" poignant words which cast a glance over future years - He knows the shadow will become a spectre on his visions and prophecies - almost rendering them meaningless. The followers have experienced the man, listened to his words, they don't need him anymore - it was the followers who elevated him to the platform history gives him. As he writhes in pain, he realises his greatest torment is the perversion and twisting of his words which will echo down the ages - "the storm is rolling down on me". Christ is left with nothing but crows, awaiting the departure of his soul. Blixa Bargeld's guitar softly, strums out a melody, as Cave's every word is echoed (hollow) by the Bad Seeds; his words are reduced to meaningless sounds. Was this really Christ's self image?

"Blind Lemon Jefferson" represents the end of the lifecycle - the dying man laying down to face the inevitable end; as the "Sycamore stretches its arms across the storm". The song fades in and out slowly - harmonica setting the tone - all long notes and sorrow - eventually developing into blues; slide gutars and heavy bass, with big beating drums - like a slow motion march through the mud and swamps of the Mississippi - you can feel the humidity here; New Orleans funeral procession beats'n'blues. Crows once more hover awaiting the final moments ("tap-tap-a-tappin") - waiting to carry the soul to the trials yet to come. The locomotive is the metaphor for the journey to judgement, like "People Get Ready" only with greater depth - as if the burden being carried is much too much, will death give redemption? The listener can feel the bleakness, but not sadness or regret; death is a fact of life - inevitable. Jefferson knows this, he accepts; the day ends, night begins - "If that sky serves as his eyes / then that moon is a cataract"....

First Born Is Dead is an excellent record. Music made reflecting Cave's own problems and obsessions - his second solo LP and he is clearly (perhaps egotistically) feeling an inevitable impossibility to deliver to his listeners anything approaching the heights scaled by his previous band. I feel he represents all these feeling well in this album.

Rating: B+

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



© 1997 Graham Drennan and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Mute Records, and is used for informational purposes only.