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Tender Prey
MUTE 1988

Buy it at Insound!

Tender Prey is one of the finest moments of one of the best bands of all time . The modal build of “The Mercy Seat,” made even more famous by Johnny Cash, perhaps even surpasses “From Her to Eternity” in intensity and is justly considered one of the band’s best recordings. “Deanna,” about a suicide pact, is the peppiest and pop-iest song on this side of The Boys Next Door and will have you singing “…I came here for your soul” years later as you wash the dishes. While both of these tunes have become contemporary standards and I haven’t seen a Bad Seeds show that didn’t include them, the rest of the record also contains one-hundred-percent solid matter – combining all kinds of generic forms in the abstract fashion of some of the better Twentieth century modernist classical compositions - blues, folk, gospel, cabaret, Neubauten-esque rigid noise, piano balladry, orchestration,... you name it.

What hasn’t been said about Tender Prey? While there are plenty of places to read about the amazing songwriting, unique vocals, and general circumstances behind the album, not much has been spoken about the extraordinary guitar team cut by Blixa Bargeld and Kid Congo Powers on this slab o’wax. I would attribute this to the fact that 1) there are so many other things going on, 2) the guitars often have a more ambient function, and, 3) most importantly, they’re not as high in the mix as with a usual rock-based ensemble (see what happens when the musical leader of the band takes up the bass!). While you can find them spicing up the breaks with their unique collective approach, look a little closer and notice that they are the atmospheric and rhythmic secret weapon – coloring and accenting a lot of the best songs.

On “Up Jumped the Devil,” while Mick Harvey’s bass, his xylophone, the string section, and Roland Wolf’s piano are up at the top of the mix, at points the guitars are chuck-a-chucking against the song – syncopated in unusual places – and briefly squealing for the slaughter in the right spots. Though they are still not as loud as Harvey’s bass, they are brought up for a brief solo interlude almost about two-and-a-half minutes into the song. While Mick Harvey’s doing Tracy, Blixa and Kid’s dual solo is reminiscent of some of Junkyard’s Mick Harvey and Rowland S. Howard duals – totally different tones panned and dancing around one another in atonal harmonies (or is Mick also one of the guitars on that one?). However subtle, the dynamic duo save the song from the becoming a complete generic gothic Broadway/Music Hall cartoon – particularly as they fan the flames at the end. I always wish that damn section was longer.

Or check out the weird guitars on “Deanna.” Just like Cave’s discussion of “the murder plan,” neither guitar does anything near what you would expect on an upbeat soul-pop-garage sing-along. The first taste is on the breaks. Then throughout the second half of the song the two do some kind of odd rhythmic mutated R&B string-bending and string-banging as they asymmetrically lock into one another in a much more artful fashion than Gang of Four ever managed - plus create some unreal feedback as well.

On “Mercy” Kid and Blixa are pure dark smoky atmosphere – again – barely in the mix. As for “City of Refuge,” you can hear Mick busting out the acoustic guitar - foreshadowing his future role in the bad and sounding almost like something from Henry’s Dream. The electric guitars again are again very driven yet super-subtle until the conclusion when they finally explode into dual feedback.

Of course there’s so much more to say about this record - and particularly one of my favorite early Cave performances, "Slowly Goes the Night." It’s quite a voyage from the heavy existential doom of “The Mercy Seat” to the major key gospel "poor spiritual fruit" of “New Morning” - but it’s a hell of a lot easier than living it.


Hear Kid tell you more about recording Tender Prey.


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