Monday, 28 July 2014

Top Ten Albums: Henry's Dream

You lookin' at me?
Nick Cave is a cussed chap. There’s a film about him coming out next month which promises to be as close to its subject as Frank was to Chris Sievey, and all the better for it.
I think Henry’s Dream is Nick Cave’s best album. He, apparently, can’t stand it. Something to do with a falling out with the producer.

I was always wary of Nick Cave. There he was, at the JHQ Rheindahlen RAF record library, staring out at me from the cover of Your Funeral, My Trial and Kicking Against the Pricks, looking like he was perfectly willing to put a stack-heeled boot into my white, flabby belly for having the temerity to like, or perhaps, not like his music.

No, it said. Steer well clear. I did, until I read a review of Tender Prey, the album which supposedly announced his arrival as a major artist. Melody Maker, my bible, said it was beyond good, so I bought it. Then I bought his next album The Good Son, a blessed relief after the intensity of Tender Prey. Then came Henry’s Dream.

I wasn’t waiting on the release date of a new Nick Cave new album, but I knew something was due, and when I walked into the Andover Our Price to see a 12” single adorned with a live shot of that unmistakable mullet I was delighted. It was called I had a Dream, Joe“I hope this is good”, I remember thinking, “I really hope this is good”.

It is. For any song to have the chance of becoming a classic, the music has to be right. Only when the setting is approaching brilliance do we start to pick apart the words, to see if the artist actually has anything to say. Terrible lyrics won’t necessarily limit the progress of a song, but good ones can help elevate it to a different level.

As a lyricist Nick Cave is in the same class as Shane MacGowan, Paul Simon and Alex Turner. He’s built a career mining a rich seam of violent, bible-belt gothic, and on this song everything comes together.

The title sets out the conceit - we are going to hear an interpretation of Mary’s first words to Joseph on waking from her dream of immaculate conception. The idea is arresting enough, but when filtered through Cave’s knack for disorientating horror, it becomes something new entirely. These are the opening lines:

I had a Dream, Joe - you were standing 
In the middle of an open road.
I had a Dream, Joe - your hands were raised up to the sky 
And your mouth was covered in foam.
I had a Dream, Joe - a shadowy Jesus, 
He flitted from a-tree to tree.
I had a Dream, Joe - a society of whores 
Stuck needles in an image of me.
I had a Dream, Joe - it was autumn-time
And thickly fell the leaves.
And in that Dream, Joe, a pimp in a seersucker suit
Sucked a toothpick, and pointed his finger at me!

Now, that’s the way to start a song. The open road, the mad raving, the unnerving presence of a witch-like Christ and the dramatic gesture at the climax all combine to paint a lurid scar across your imagination. Echoes of Martin Luther King in the phrasing, too. This is not your average pop record.

As soon as I could, I got my hands on the album.

The cover of Henry's Dream is a painting of an orange-red sky behind a billboard. The billboard features the album’s title and an image of Mr Cave in mid-West preacher get-up. He wears his thumbs on his lapels and a brooding expression. 
The picture transports you to a fictionalised version of America's dustbowl. You are drifting into someone else’s mental landscape, looking up at a sign which can be read as as a statement of authority and a warning.

The journey begins with Papa Won’t Leave You Henry - sample lyric:

I entered through, the curtain hissed
Into the house with its blood-red bowels
Where wet-lipped women with greasy fists
Crawled the ceilings and the walls

and ends with Jack the Ripper - sample lyric:

I got a woman - she strikes me down with a fist of lead
I got a woman - she strikes me down with a fist of lead
We bed in a bucket of butcher's knives
I awake with a hatchet hanging over my head

in between we get love-in-the-time-of-the-apocalypse courtesy of Straight to You - sample lyric:

Gone are the days of rainbows
Gone are the nights of swinging from the stars
For the sea will swallow up the mountains
And the sky will throw thunderbolts and sparks
Straight at you, but I'll come a-running
Straight to you, but I'll come a-running
One more time...

an outsider love story - The Loom of the Land - sample lyric:

It was the dirty end of winter
Along the loom of the land
And I walked with sweet Sally
Hand upon hand
And the wind it bit bitter 
For a boy of no means
With no shoes on his feet
And a knife in his jeans

the song of a self-pitying as yet un-caught murderer - When I First Came to Town - sample lyric:

Suspicion and dark murmurs surround me
Everywhere I go, they confound me
As though the blood on my hands is there
For every citizen, here to see

and the best drinking song ever - O Brother, My Cup is Empty - sample lyric:

I've been sliding down on rainbows
I've been swinging from the stars
Now this wretch in beggar's clothing
Bangs his cup across the bars
Look, this cup of mine is empty!
Seems I've misplaced my desires
Seems I'm sweeping up the ashes
Of all my former fires
So brother, be a brother
And fill this tiny cup of mine
And please, sir, make it whiskey
I have no head for wine

The only duff track is Christina the Astonishing, about a 12th Century saint, which is performed almost as plainsong.

The rest of the album is outstanding. It features an interchangeable cast of murderers, drunks and lowlifes - overlapping lyrical obsessions and imagery delivered with deranged passion. The Bad Seeds' sound around this time was described as an unholy racket. It is.

I cannot recommend this record highly enough. A shame the person who wrote it disagrees.


Other top ten albums added so far:

The Waterboys - This is the Sea

Floodland - Sisters of Mercy
Duran Duran - Rio

The rationale for doing this

Further rationale at the bottom of the This is the Sea entry.


  1. I don't think I have ever really listened to Henry's Dream, but "Straight to you" is one of my favourite songs of his. It's brilliant! I will have to give it a go.

  2. The Boatmans Call and Let Love In...they are my favourites. Dark, beautiful, witty. Though I have to admit I bloody love Dig, Lazarus, Dig....anyway... Nick Cave took me a bit of time to get into, but now I'm there he is incredible. Never seen him live, would love to have the chance of seeing the tall blighter perform.