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.

A Solitary Splendour

Toumani Diabate – The Mande Variations (World Circuit, 2008)

A true master of his craft, Toumani Diabate is capable of adapting the Kora to a wide variety of contexts, sounding every bit as comfortable on this exquisite solo recording as with his thrilling Symmetric Orchestra. The uniquely challenging instrument (a 21 stringed harp with 11 strings for one hand and ten for the other) has been in Diabate’s family for generations – his father Sidiki was reputedly also a virtuoso. Toumani recorded ‘Kaira’, his first solo Kora album at the tender age of 21, now returning to the strictures of solo recording (mostly single takes with no overdubs) more than twenty years later. In many ways, it represents a withdrawal or introversion – a musical examination of personal experience and founding influences.

‘The Mande Variations’ contains some of the most beautiful music of this year or any other. A lot of this undoubtedly rests heavily on Toumani’s technical brilliance and personal approach to composition but a good deal of credit should also go to World Circuit’s Nick Gold for creating such an extraordinary sound. Whilst little or no treatment has been applied to Toumani’s playing here, the natural acoustic is so reverberant and spacious as to capture Toumani’s dazzling virtuosity without sounding cluttered or busy. There is a calm, meditative quality to much of this music.

Toumani appears particularly open-minded in his approach to music. Whilst there is, as might be expected, a close personal engagement with the griot folk tradition from which he comes, there are also references and even quotes that present ‘The Mande Variations’ as an attempt to juxtapose heritage with some wider, more immediate influences, drawn both from music and experience. The wistful, haunting ‘Elyne Road’ incorporates the melody from reggae classic ‘Kingston Town’, with Toumani affected by the ubiquity of UB40’s version during his first trip to England. The remarkable closing track ‘Cantelowes’ quotes directly from Morricone’s soundtrack to ‘The Good, The Bad and The Ugly’, as well as being dedicated to a friend who lived on Cantelowes Road in London, where Toumani apparently stayed for several months when first in the UK.

The near-perfect synchronicity between Diabate’s left and right hand figures is astonishing, particularly on the peculiarly relentless ‘Kaounding Cissoko’. ‘Ali Farka Toure’, of course dedicated to the recently departed desert blues sensation, demonstrates both Diabate’s manual dexterity and his musical intuition, with lengthy flurries of notes that defy the imagination. The latter was purely improvised in the studio, a further testament to Diabate’s open-mindedness towards a variety of compositional techniques.

Elsewhere, he draws directly on the folk tradition, always refashioning melodic ideas for his own purposes. For example, the opening ‘Si Naani’ features two themes taken from Griot folk songs, but which Diabate has made his very own through his considered and expressive extrapolations. The album’s title perhaps hints at his extraordinary talent for developing and expanding melodic ideas. There’s little of the twitching and flitting between numerous ideas that sometimes undermines improvisational playing – Diabate is more interested in establishing and sustaining particular emotions. Whilst there’s a sense of wistful nostalgia to much of this music, there’s also a sense of looking forward at the same time as retreating inward – a powerful combination that lends Diabate’s refashioning of his influences a genuinely timeless aura.

What is most powerfully striking about ‘The Mande Variations’ is that, in the midst of all this dazzling technique and exceptional skill, there is very little sense of ego or aggression. Somehow, Diabate manages to make all this sound peaceful and reflective, and he never resorts to vacuous showmanship. He may have the ability to dazzle, but he also has the judgement and instinct to know when to hold back. Technique is always firmly subordinated to the abiding mood or feeling, and the album is richly rewarding and emotional as a result of this.