Monday, March 03, 2008

It Gets Stranger Every Year...

Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds – Dig! Lazarus! Dig! (Mute, 2008)

This latest instalment in the increasingly prolific saga of Nick Cave, so far every bit as well received as the triumphant ‘Abattoir Blues/Lyre of Orpheus’, is something of an intriguing oddity. Even for a man who so often takes the art of songwriting well beyond its logical conclusion, luxuriating in his own language, Cave is at his most unrestrained and verbose here. So much so in fact that the album requires a 50+ page booklet in order to exhibit all his lyrical flights of fancy. Cave is perilously perched on the edge of self parody throughout (only he could get away with a line like ‘Henry got lost down south in the weeping forests of le vulva’), but somehow mostly sustains the wild and untamed humour. This is therefore an album much less concerned with melody, and more with the sheer unbridled joy of trying to squeeze in as many words as possible.

There are some brilliantly inventive couplets which counter any possible accusations of self-indulgence (if anything, Cave’s most pretentious album was ‘No More Shall We Part’, which showed him taking himself far more seriously than he does here). The brilliant ‘We Call upon the Author’, perhaps a wiry, even quirkier restating of the ideas that informed ‘There She Goes My Beautiful World’, not only dismisses cult writer Charles Bukowski as a ‘jerk’, but also proudly boasts the refrain ‘PROLIX! PROLIX! Nothin’ a pair of scissors can’t fix!’. There’s also the compelling assault of ‘Albert Goes West’, in which Cave celebrates misdemeanours with malevolent glee (‘the world is full of endless abstractions/and I won’t be held responsible for my actions’). The closing ‘More News from Nowhere’ seems to be a litany of liaisons with various femme fatales, in which Cave even allows himself to get a little self-referential. The lines ‘I bumped bang crash into Deanna/hanging pretty in the door frame/all the horrors that befell me/well Deanna was to blame’ inevitably remind us of Cave’s earlier classic ‘Deanna’ (from the ‘Tender Prey’ album).

Musically, the residual influence of last year’s Grinderman side project undoubtedly permeates. There’s plenty of that album’s swampy groove, stark minimalism and insistent feedback. Correspondingly, there’s very little of the melancholy balladry that characterised ‘The Boatman’s Call’ (a masterpiece for many but now dismissed as a romantic indulgence by Cave) and that has remained a mainstay of Cave albums up to and including the patchy ‘Nocturama’. There’s a significant difference here though, which undoubtedly identifies this as a Bad Seeds album rather than merely an extension of the Grinderman ethos. In the absence of Blixa Bargeld, it’s fascinating to hear how the Bad Seeds have reconfigured themselves around new dominant instrumental characteristics – particularly agile, minimal bass figures and James Johnston’s pulsating organ. Whilst his parts are mostly rudimentary, Johnston’s presence has significantly transformed the Bad Seeds’ sound, something that might perhaps have otherwise been in danger of becoming stale and familiar.

There are times when The Bad Seeds sound positively alien here. The extraordinary ‘Night of the Lotus Eaters’ insistently repeats a three note motif, gradually adding and subtracting a variety of disorientating elements, including caustic guitar and undisciplined drums that pull against the driving rhythm. It’s a fascinatingly controlled and anchored form of chaos. There are also the strange high-pitched anti-sounds that linger suspiciously in the background of ‘Hold On To Yourself’ or the compelling and surprisingly soulful textures of ‘Midnight Man’. There are frequent savage guitar interjections that cut through the more conventional arrangements.

Whilst much of ‘Abattoir Blues’ was savage and furious, there’s something peculiarly light and airy about ‘Dig! Lazarus! Dig!’. The bountiful call-and-response chanting adds a sense of fun to the proceedings which lightens the atmosphere and directs the mood away from furious intensity towards something more playful.
This lighter approach works well on the tracks which are anchored by spidery bass lines, particularly the wiry funk of ‘Moonland’, or the satisfyingly relentless ‘We Call upon the Author’. When the songs are restricted by conventionally strummed acoustic guitar, the results are perhaps less successful. Whilst it often seems to be there only to hover in the background, the acoustic guitar strumming sometimes prevents the songs from taking full flight rather than adding creeping menace, which might possibly have been the intention. This is particularly true of the comparably uninteresting ‘Lie Down Here and Be My Girl’, and even ‘Albert Goes West’ suffers a little from this arrangement quirk. Similarly, the rather straightforward chug of ‘More News From Nowhere’ (which, to my ears, harks back at Tom Waits’ ‘Downtown Train’) arguably detracts a little from the unparalleled wit and invention of its lyric. Perhaps Cave intended it to be a subtler take on the fiery epic than ‘Babe I’m On Fire’, the blistering but overlong assault that terminated ‘Nocturama’.

Maybe it’s ironic that the most successful track here might best be described as a ballad, but ‘Jesus of the Moon’ is one of the very best songs of Cave’s career. The opening line (‘I Stepped Out of the St. James Hotel’) instantly reminds me of Bob Dylan’s ‘Blind Willie McTell’, and this song has a comparable grasp of legacy and cultural history (the opening verse proceeds to proclaim ‘a change is gonna come’). It also has one stark confessional moment with Cave, himself now something of a family man, boldly stating ‘people often talk about being scared of change/ but for me I’m more afraid of things staying the same/for the game is never won/by staying in the same place for too long’. These lines inevitably suggest a fear of commitment, but they also have a deeper resonance that present Cave as a restless, fearless artist, striving to capture an unstoppable torrent of ideas. I don’t accept the success of ‘Dig! Lazarus! Dig!’ quite as uncritically as some other writers have done, but I recognise that it’s emphatically not an immediate or straightforward record. These complex songs, with their fragmented imagery and floods of language, will repay close attention. Getting more acquainted with them will also no doubt be great fun, which is preferable to the self-important proselytising that undermines Cave’s least successful work.

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