North London’s Alexandra Palace, also known as “The People’s Palace,” the sister location to South London’s Crystal Palace, opened on Queen Victoria’s 54th birthday in May 1873. Just 16 days later on the morning of 9 June “Ally Pally,” as it is affectionately called, broke out in flames caused by what the Sydney Morning Herald called “the heedless conduct of a plumber.” The local fire brigade couldn’t handle the blaze alone and the Metropolitan Fire Brigade was called into assist.
Not only were the large, open auditoriums and corridors inside The People’s Palace a problem that too easily caused the fire to spread quickly, the edifice was precariously situated atop Muswell Hill, and the arduous seven-mile trek to the top of the landmark overcame the 120 firefighters and horse-drawn and manual engines tasked with dousing the flames.
By 3 p.m. Ally Pally would be gutted and three people would ultimately be dead as a result of the inferno.
Of course Alexandra Palace was rebuilt and reopened two years later. Over the years the structure has become home to recreation and entertainment events as well as serving as refugee camp for Belgians during the First World War.
In 1980, the curse of irony struck and Ally Pally suffered yet another instance of “heedless conduct” as it were, this time during a jazz festival, and was claimed by a second fire.
The Palace reopened in 1988 and has remained home to countless sporting events, concerts, and performing arts to this day.
In 2020, as the world metaphorically burns by the light of a relentless pandemic amidst “heedless conduct,” one has to wonder if singer-songwriter—punk rock’s ex-patriate, and the world’s most-likely singular living specimen of a vampire—Nick Cave, was aware of the venue’s cursed, ironic history as he, without a trace of irony, chose the location for his solo piano performance Idiot Prayer—Nick Cave Alone at Alexandra Palace.
After the pandemic forced the Bad Seed to cancel his European and North American tours for 2020, in a stroke of genius, as the world ironically called for everyone’s unanimous isolation, in a “hold my beer” move, Nick Cave released the streaming concert event Idiot Prayer—a title taken from a song of the same name on 1997’s The Boatman’s Call—featuring only himself alone at a piano inside London’s creepy, Victorian-chic Alexandra Palace. As I said, not an ounce of irony. This week, Idiot Prayer was finally released as an album.
If you’ve attended any “Conversations With Nick Cave” events in the past couple of years, you’ll know that Cave has forged a newfound, intimate bond with his fans, right up to and including putting himself in the dangerously uncomfortable position of inviting them on stage and giving them permission to ask him literally anything they want.
During those events, between questions awkward and profound, Cave performs surprisingly stripped down solo piano versions of classic Bad Seeds and Grinderman tunes. “I loved playing deconstructed versions of my songs at these shows, distilling them to their essential forms,” Cave says in Idiot Prayer’s liner notes. “I felt I was rediscovering the songs all over again.”
He goes on to say that the self-reflective silence of the pandemic inspired him to record and film these songs “as a prayer into the void,” resulting in “a souvenir from a strange and precarious moment in history” that is Idiot Prayer.
Loaded with customary Bad Seeds standards “Stranger Than Kindness,” “The Ship Song,” “Into My Arms,” and “The Mercy Seat,” the album shines brightest with surprises like “Sad Waters,”—a song only previously available this beautifully on the concert DVD The Abattoir Blues Tour and the very rare Secret Life of the Love Song & the Flesh Made Word —and“He Wants You” from the weakest Bad Seeds album Nocturama, and isn’t necessarily considered a fan favorite, but is a delightful moment that mixes up expectations. I daresay, ironic.
The Grinderman tracks “Palaces of Montezuma” and “Man In the Moon” are even thrown into the mix and translate magnificently as solo piano numbers. By the way, “Palaces of Montezuma” might be one of the finest love songs ever, chock full of boyish romantic intent, complete with ghastly imagery in one of the greatest lyrics in rock ’n roll: “the spinal cord of JFK wrapped in Marilyn Monroe’s negligee, I give to you,” Cave desperately pleads for his lover’s affections. That’s about as punk rock as you can get.
And that’s not all! Idiot Prayer is also the first time we hear the tracks “Spinning Song,” “Waiting For You,” and “Galleon Ship” from last year’s Ghosteen played live, period.
The biggest surprise is the one new track titled “Euthanasia” which lyrically moves away from the death and afterlife themes of the past couple of Bad Seeds albums. In this song, Nick gets back to what he’s best at, the good old fashioned love song: “When you stepped out of the vehicle / And attached yourself to my heart / It was a kind of dying / A kind of dying / Dying of time.” See what I mean. I’m sure its macabre title will give pause to lots of little old ladies at many a wedding in the years to come.
It’s fascinating to hear these tunes played only on piano, many for the first time, like the near melody-less “Higgs Boson Blues.” Here, the song comes across as a prescient and ominous meditation amidst these “strange and precarious times.” And “Jubliee Street,” when played live with the band is worth whatever you paid for admission, doesn’t hit quite as hard in solo piano form, yet its bareness ironically reveals the song’s desperate, violent edge.
Having seen the streaming event myself earlier this year, and while Cave had the best intentions, Idiot Prayer is far more interesting to listen to than to watch. But if you’re up for it, it’s certainly worth checking out and the solo concert is scheduled to play in select cinemas across Europe and the UK in January.
My favorite track on Idiot Prayer is “Papa Won’t Leave You, Henry,” a song originally housed in a cacophony of music as it lyrically spirals into depraved madness on the album Henry’s Dream: “I entered through, and the curtain hissed / Into the house with its blood-red bowels / Where wet-lipped women with greasy fists / Crawled the ceilings and the walls.” Here, in solo piano, the song plays hauntingly and far more unsettling than Henry could have ever dreamed.
I’ve been saying for years that Nick Cave should release a solo album, and now that that day is here, I truly only have a ubiquitous plague to thank for it. Who says nothing good could come from “heedless conduct,” isolation, and sanitizer-chapped hands? Even though the intent behind Idiot Prayer is the furthest thing from irony, I’m sure even un-ironic Nick Cave can see the delightful irony in such a wonderful thing to come from something so terrible in place that’s had its share of troubles.
Idiot Prayer—Nick Cave Alone at Alexandra Palace is now available on CD, vinyl, streaming, and digital download.
Words by Lucas Hardwick.