Oftentimes, when a band corrals its obscurities into one hefty package, you find—to either your delight or dismay—that you’re holding what amounts to an odd, alternate universe; a sprawling parade of stylistic detours from the established musical storyline that shakes, or even redefines, your long-held perceptions of what the group is all about. The Cure wrote happy tunes when they were supposed to be depressed! The Misfits harbored a secret affection for the Rodgers and Hammerstein songbook! And so on.
No such bombshells, however, with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. This three-disc, 56-song set—a wholly engaging collection of B-sides, outtakes, flexi-singles, radio sessions, soundtrack material and other non-album cuts, masterfully compiled and sequenced by second Seed Mick Harvey—faithfully parallels the band’s 21-year evolution. It also affirms the myriad Cave personas that have punctuated the plot along the way: unhinged bluesman, vampiric lounge lizard, gallows jester, baritoned badlands minstrel, Saturday night sinner & Sunday morning saint (or is it the other way around?). B-Sides & Rarities may surprise you, not because of its experimental deviation, but because of just how much terrific material has been relegated to the margins of the Bad Seeds’ discography until now.
Although Harvey wisely chose a chronological approach, give or take a few tracks jumbled for the sake of superlative flow, the set kicks off six years in, with a powerful 1990 acoustic versions of “Deanna” and “The Mercy Seat.” It’s a smart move, as both numbers (particularly the latter, with its harrowing electric-chair narrative) act as a sort of overture, introducing themes of lust, violence, hope, death, damnation and salvation that saturate the Seeds’ oeuvre. Such motifs reverberate here in the 1985 flipside “The Six Strings that Drew Blood”—an eerie, swampy reconfiguration of a track originally recorded by Cave’s previous outfit, the Birthday Party, that aptly reflects his early obsessions with the blues and Southern Gothic traditions—and the savagely hilarious “Scum,” in which Cave lyrically pistol-whips, then envisions slaughtering, a real-life U.K. scribe who betrayed him with a bad review.
Disc two begins with comedy a bit more subtle: Cave’s 1992 duet with Pogues singer Shane MacGowan on “What a Wonderful World,” turning the standard into a torpid, last-call lament. (Certainly, if anyone could convince you a miserable-ist subtext has always lurked within the theoretically optimistic song, it’s this pair.) There’s no shortage of macabre humor in alternate renderings of the band’s heralded murder ballads; a three-part 1996 BBC Radio version of “O’Malley’s Bar” adds even more brilliantly preposterous verses to the rakish splatterfest. Also of note here is a 1995 demo of “Where the Wild Roses Grow,” with recently departed Seeds guitarist Blixa Bargeld acting as Cave’s vocal foil (and bludgeoning victim)—a role eventually taken by Kylie Minogue for the celebrated hit. Though the final version is superior, Bargeld’s quivering tenor still puts an interesting spin on the song’s inherent sexual tension.
Dark humor gives way to genteel introspection—frequently tinted with pastoral imagery and hymnal tropes—on the third disc, which primarily encompasses Cave’s late-’90s-onward search for peace and redemption. “I am what I am / What will be will be,” he offers in the organ-dappled, previously unreleased soul gem “Opium Tea.” “I’m just trying my best to heal this crazy old wounded moon,” Cave sings in the jangly, upbeat finale “Under This Moon,” a B-side recorded during sessions for last year’s splendid Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus double album. With phenomenal sound quality and scarcely a weak track in the lot, B-Sides & Rarities ought to satisfy Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds fans with its fascinating, if fairly familiar, tale. After all, when the story’s this good, who needs a rewrite?