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Prayers On Fire

The Birthday Party

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Album Review

It should come as no surprise that there is an album in Nick Cave's oeuvre called Prayers on Fire; a fascination with the dark, (self-)destructive side of religion is more than evident in his later work with the Bad Seeds. While there might not be any of the explicit Biblical imagery on Prayers on Fire that Cave would later ejaculate, the title of the album is apt, and its aptness is revealed almost immediately. Over the tribal thud of floor toms, shards of trebly guitar, the throb of an organ, and even a creepily out-of-place trumpet come the possessed, chant-like vocals — not an incantation to any god, but to "Zoo-Music Girl." It's the religion of depraved sexuality, bestial urges, and sadomasochism. "We spend our lives in a box full of dirt/I murder her dress till it hurts/I murder her dress and she loves it," howls Cave, echoing Leonard Cohen and finally concluding with the berserk plea, "Oh! God! Please let me die beneath her fists." Meanwhile, Cave sounds like he's actually being assaulted by the music, emitting horrific gasps and primitive grunts. And this is only the first track. On the next two tracks, language itself is violated and found inadequate. Words collapse upon themselves in "Cry," with Cave tossing out self-annihilating binaries like "space/no space," "fish/no fish," "clothes/no clothes," and "flesh/no flesh." On "Capers," penned by Genevieve McGuckin, semantics are made into sausage — words are chewed up and regurgitated as warped neologisms: "gloomloom," "clocklock," "paperparrent," "diehood." The lyrics for "Figure of Fun" aren't even printed in the booklet; instead, merely "obsessive, deadpan, moribund, seasick, etc." And perhaps that best sums up Prayers on Fire's graveyard poetry. The rest of the album is a subterranean labyrinth full of "sand and soot and dust and dirt," peopled by bizarre characters like Nick the Stripper and King Ink, and replete with images of murder, decay, blood, and Kafka-esque insects. Then, of course, there's Cave himself, the literate ghoul with an impressive vocal range who just stepped out of a B horror flick, trying to parry the intensity of the music like an Iggy Pop wasted on goth pills. But be careful not to overlook his subtle sense of humor and his awareness of the camp — there are also chickens to be counted, nuns inside his head, and Fats Domino on the radio. With Mick Harvey being the only future Bad Seed on hand (Anita Lane also contributed one set of lyrics), the music here foreshadows Cave's later work without quite resembling it (with the exception of his first album). The Birthday Party are closer to Joy Division (only more theatrical), the Pop Group (only spookier), or Pere Ubu (only more percussive). Though present on most of the tracks, the moody piano that would dominate much of Cave's solo work is never really prominent here. Instead it's the squiggles of Rowland Howard's guitar dodging the blows of the furious rhythm section that distinguishes the Birthday Party. Oppressive and unrelenting, Prayers on Fire is highly recommended for those aspiring to advanced states of dementia.

Biography

Formed: 1977 in Melbourne, Australia

Genre: Alternative

Years Active: '80s

The Birthday Party were one of the darkest and most challenging post-punk groups to emerge in the early '80s, creating bleak and noisy soundscapes that provided the perfect setting for vocalist Nick Cave's difficult, disturbing stories of religion, violence, and perversity. Under the direction of Cave and guitarist Rowland S. Howard, the band tore through reams of blues and rockabilly licks, spitting out hellacious feedback and noise at an unrelenting...
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