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Nick Cave: Still scary after all these years

Prolific Aussie songwriter continues pushing boundaries

Published: May 2, 2008
Section: Arts, Etc.



Nick Cave is not the sort of person you’d want to meet in a dark alley at night. As a matter of fact, I’m not even sure you’d want to associate with the pugnacious Aussie in the middle of Grand Central Station. If his ferociously raw vocals weren’t intimidating enough, imagine them fermented in a stew of earsplitting distorted guitar fragments and you’ve got a concoction potent enough to make a grown man cry for mercy.

Nevertheless, admirers of Cave’s second band, The Birthday Party, realize that there’s something artistically intriguing about a man who manages to combine primal noise and literary wit into a corrosive onslaught of imagery-laced assonance. That group managed to push the proto-punk death rattle of the Stooges to its logical conclusion by integrating self-lacerating cacophony into the songs’ actual structures rather than just their aesthetic. Iggy Pop once proclaimed in an interview that he was influenced by urban industrial sounds such as the hum of an electric razor; Nick Cave could just as easily have said the same thing about an incinerator.

In 1984, Nick Cave and Mick Harvey of the Birthday Party split off to form the nucleus of a band called Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and their fourteenth album, Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!, is a testament to the group’s dexterity and songwriting chops. Released last month by the label Anti, the album stands as one of Cave’s most ambitious and evocative works since his former band’s heyday.

According to Cave, Dig!!! is a concept album based not only on the New Testament tale of Lazarus’ resurrection from the dead but also on the travails of the great escape artist, Harry Houdini. Nevertheless, the first track begins with a tale of “Larry’s” adventures with girls, guns and existential wandering that is decisively more Kerouacian than biblical, setting the lyrical tone for the rest of the album. “I mean, he never asked to be raised from the tomb,” Cave declares in a plaintive howl, “I mean no one ever really asked him to forsake his dreams.” Listening to lines like this backed by the blistering accompaniment of a Nuggets-y garage stomp and Ray Manzarek-esque organ riffs makes you wish a Sunday school teacher would accidentally stumble upon this interpretation of the Christian parable just to see his reaction.

Musically, the album is much more diffuse than Cave’s latest outing with his new band, Grinderman, trading in gut-busting percussive grooves for grunge-soaked hooks and eclectic flavors without sacrificing an ounce of visceral punch. Moreover, the album manages to construct a neat musical arc (if not a narrative one) that builds and releases tension in all the right places without sounding formulaic.

Aside from the spoken word Cro-magnum punk of the title track, “Albert Goes West” is the album’s greatest tour de force. Bristling with barbed-wire textures and killer harmonized vocal hooks, the track suggests a violent bar fight between Ray Davies and the Jesus and Mary Chain’s Reid Brothers. The second half of the disc hinges on the CBGBs-ready punk of “Lie Down Here (& Be My Girl),” an urgent ballad driven by explosive drumming and discordant guitar squeals.

Anchored by these two dynamic tunes, Cave gives the surrounding tracks room to breathe. “Night of the Lotus Eaters” sees him indulging his Tom Waitsian impulses, piercing his gruff moan with icy harmonics, and “Hold on to Yourself” recasts “The Black Angel’s Death Song” as a post-apocalyptic confessional. The weakest moment comes with the clichéd ballad, “Jesus of the Moon,” featuring a ukulele and cello arrangement that doesn’t quite mask a weak melody and verse-chorus-verse structure that seems beneath Cave’s abilities.

In the end, however, it’s the force of Cave’s personality that ties the record together into a cohesive work of art. His hyper-ironic sneer is nothing new, but the emotive bellow on “Hold on to Yourself” reveals Cave’s willingness to explore unfamiliar terrain.

Moreover, his lyrical voice invokes a perfect synthesis of pop songwriting sensibility and Faulkner-esque stream of consciousness poetry. It might be a bit extreme to extend the album’s resurrection motif to Cave’s musical development, but Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! offers a persuasive case for the artistic merit of a man who still has the power to scare the pants off his most ardent fans.