YOUR FUNERAL…MY TRIAL
Released: November 3, 1986
Produced by: Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Flood and Tony Cohen
Recorded at: Hansa Studios, Berlin; The Strongroom, London
Personnel: Nick Cave (vocals, piano, organ, harmonica), Blixa Bargeld (guitar, vocals), Mick Harvey (guitar, drums, percussion, bass, piano, xylophone, glockenspiel, organ, vocals), Thomas Wydler (drums, fire extinguisher), Barry Adamson (bass)
“This has always been the band’s favourite record,” Nick Cave said in 2009. “Or for a long time it was. We really hit on something there… some really delicate, strange abstracted kinds of songs that I really loved.”
For a long time, however, Your Funeral… My Trial lingered in the shadows of The Bad Seeds’ discography, eclipsed by what had come immediately before – the eye-catching spectacle of Cave doing a covers album – and what came next: the magnificent Tender Prey and in particular “The Mercy Seat,” which would flap like a flaming albatross around Cave’s neck as “The Song” for decades.
In a way, Your Funeral‘s obscurity came pre-programmed. It was recorded fast on the heels of Kicking Against The Pricks, and appeared less than three months later, with no tour and little promotion. Further, it was released not as a regular LP, but a set of two 45s, looking less like an album than – in the 1980s way – some fancy 12” single double pack. (In fact, the cover was very similar to that of The Bad Seeds’ most recent previous single, “The Singer.”) It’s not too fanciful to suggest that some fans, hoping to settle into its muddy, golden brown mood, quickly grew frustrated at having to get up off the squat floor to lift the needle every two songs, and so let the record languish.
This album, though, is where The Bad Seeds truly found their own voice. All the more impressive given it was recorded in the midst of upheaval as Barry Adamson quit and Cave’s drug habit deepened. (His frustration with music journalists’ exploitative fascination with that were made witheringly explicit on the tirade “Scum,” recorded during these sessions for a 7” flexi sold at live shows, and later included on the CD reissue.)
Your Funeral… has a beguilingly strange, out-of-focus atmosphere, and yet a great clarity of purpose. From Her To Eternity was a desperate exorcism haunted by the ghosts of The Birthday Party; The Firstborn Is Dead a grand pretence as Cave strutted, stumbled and shuffled in old blues rags; Kicking… a smash and grab on other peoples’ songs as he tried to decide which of them he wanted to be.
The answer, of course, was that he wanted to be all of them, and yet no one but himself. And here, his band finally finished absorbing all of those disparate influences and inspirations, and began to generate a noise that carried echoes of them all, but sounded like no one else.
You hear it most clearly on the record’s famous centrepiece, “The Carny,” the song that pushes Cave’s evolving narrative style to its limit. The longest track at 8 minutes, Cave’s evocation of the cursed mood descending on a travelling carnival after the ominous and unexplained disappearance of one of its number is practically a spoken-word short story. It draws from the fetid carnival-noir subgenre of American Gothic, movies like Freaks (1932) and Nightmare Alley (1947), yet, while there are parallels with Tom Waits’s junkyard cabarets, The Bad Seeds drag the song far from America, deep into a blasted outback of their own, smothered by dark European clouds.
As the song grows deranged by Mick Harvey’s lunatic, whirligig fairground organ and a ceaseless, deafening clang-bang, it is hard to believe only three men are making all this noise. With Adamson’s departure, Cave, Bargeld and Harvey are forced to assume strange formations all across this album. But all that space frees Harvey. He is all over the record, laying down the widescreen template that The Bad Seeds would use across the next decade. Listen as the multi-instrumentalist leaps around conjuring the hectic emotional landscapes of “She Fell Away” and the surging, spindly fantasy “Jack’s Shadow”: this album is as much testament to Harvey’s genius as Cave’s.
“The Carny” helped push Cave’s fame further up out of the underground when Wim Wenders used it prominently soon after in Wings Of Desire. It’s the record’s best-known track, but not its best song. The title track is a contender: “Your Funeral My Trial,” steals its name from a menacing slow boogie by the formidable Sonny Boy Williamson (when Bob Dylan lifted the phrase for his “Love & Theft” song “Cry A While,” it remained magnificently unclear whether he had Cave or Williamson in mind), but it soothes it into a mournfully beautiful ballad.
The opener, “Sad Waters,” is even more gorgeously bruised. It’s audacious enough to steal, with great, wasted sincerity, its opening lines from “The Green Green Grass Of Home,” but remains a thing of its own, wept over by Cave’s plaintive harmonica. Far removed from The Birthday Party’s anti-rock sneering, this is the song that first posited Cave as one the great doomed-romantic crooners.
The raging “Hard On For Love,” meanwhile, with its hysterically timed premature ending, is Cave’s spit-flecked, knuckle-dragging, hairy-palmed answer to any who want him to be that doomed romantic. It recalls the anti-poetry of Leonard Cohen’s “Don’t Go Home With Your Hard On,” but the title is actually lifted from a song by The Reals, a short-lived group on Australia’s mid-1970s punk scene who Cave knew back when he was writing ditties like “Masturbation Generation.”
Whipped by Harvey into a careening storm of flaccid lust, it builds to a glorious cacophony, but even that is blown away by the intensity of the closing cover of Tim Rose’s “Long Time Man.” Rather than Hendrix, Cave took Rose’s desolate 1967 reading of “Hey Joe” as his model on Kicking Against The Pricks, but this howling, remorseful, emotionally draining murderer’s lament dwarfs any performance on the covers album.
For all the thunder, however, it is Your Funeral…’s quieter moments that mark it out. The eye of the storm is the hazy, hypnotic “Stranger Than Kindness,” a nocturnal burrow deep into the red-lit boroughs of desire, and a half-formed mystery of a song that floats perpetually behind a veil, never quite resolving or revealing itself.
Curiously arranged – guitar, drums, spooked and hesitant organ – it’s one of the great Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds songs, and it is not a Nick Cave song at all. Written by Bargeld and Cave’s sometime muse, Anita Lane, the brilliance of the performance lies in Cave’s uncertainty about the unsettling terrain he’s ventured into. A dangerous spell of an album, Your Funeral…, and particularly Harvey’s work, pointed the way ahead. But they’d never again sound quite like “Stranger Than Kindness.” Then again, neither would anybody else.