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Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! Print E-mail
Thursday, 01 May 2008
ImageDespite the fact that nearly every great artist will reach a point where everything they do will be considered a “comeback” of sorts, the fact remains that very few songwriters seem to have much left to say after their 50th birthday. Stretching from Paul McCartney and Neil Young to Brian Wilson and David Bowie, the list of artists who have simply become lesser versions of their earlier selves is long, littered with onetime visionaries who are left to make warmly received but soon to be forgotten albums. But some songwriters do manage to find a second life, and the select few that have experienced a career renaissance have done so by moving away from what they have already proven they do best. Take Bob Dylan and his back-to-the-basics exploration of bedrock American music forms or Tom Waits and his willingness to experiment with beatboxing and samples – both questionable moves that allowed each songwriter to explore new territory while retaining the core of his craft. With Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds attempt to prove that they will not be defined by their past. Continuing a reinvention that began with last year’s Grinderman, this brutishly loud and vulgar project Cave started with three of his Bad Seeds bandmates, Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! proves just how committed the band is to staving off old age. Now 50, Cave has grown into his elder statesman status through 20 years of brooding ballads and sweeping orchestral flourishes, but has lately admitted his desire to push him and his band away from their veteran strengths. And while those inclinations have been bubbling beneath the surface since 2003’s listless Nocturama and 2004’s partly rollicking, partly reserved Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus, Cave and his band sound as if they’re actually having fun now. As if freed from having to find new ways to reconfigure themselves around Cave’s somber piano and sorrowful verse, they’ve made a true ‘60s garage rock album, one built around frenzied group vocals and candy-colored organ riffs. For a band that once seemed comfortably locked in the funeral parlor to sound like a bunch of kids playing power chords for the first time might just be enough to grant them second life on their 14th album.

Tellingly, Cave finds that second life by titling his album after a Biblical figure who was famously brought back to life by Jesus Christ. But in typical Cave style, Lazarus doesn’t fare so well the second time he’s pulled back from the beyond. Renamed “Larry” and living in New York City on the churning title track, he soon drifts to San Francisco and chases tail, ending up hounded by the paparazzi and a homeless drug addict. But most startling is the song’s greasy pulse, with squealing guitars and phased organ riffs carrying Cave’s leering vocal and the sing-along chorus. For a man who has always cultivated a certain austerity, whether favoring glossy orchestral arrangements or darkly sprawling rockers, this is one of the rare times when Cave sounds like he is playing free and off-the-cuff, as if the song is emerging right in the moment. That spirit defines the rest of the album.

Very much in the character of last year’s Grinderman album, this album takes a less confrontational but similarly unkempt ethos throughout much of its 11 tracks. Forcing his bandmates to play more spontaneously and viscerally by keeping them away from their favored instruments and forcing them to settle on only a few takes in the studio, Cave has written songs that are fairly simple structurally and melodically, focusing on the performance as much as the presentation. As often as not, here the groove is king, and Cave uses these repetitive backdrops to position his lyrics to stand in even stronger contrast, whether warning of the apocalypse over screeching feedback and rattling percussion on “Night of the Lotus Eaters” or pleading for companionship alongside the percussive acoustic guitar strums and blasts of guitar distortion on “Lie Down Here (& Be My Girl).” But Cave remains first and foremost a storyteller, and what ultimately places the album among his best is Cave’s masterful writing.

Continuing his career-long exploration of Biblical themes, Cave returns to those archetypes and symbols to simultaneously express isolation and dreams of redemption through love in the plaintive “Jesus of the Moon.” Preternaturally perched on the fence in regards to his faith, he uses the Velvet Underground sound and frenzied guitar noise of “We Call Upon the Author” to count off a litany of grievances and question the seemingly meaningless motions of God and himself in the grand scheme of the cosmos. “Prolix, prolix / it’s nothing a pair of scissors can’t fix,” he shouts – naming off some writers – before all the instruments drop out and reveal a sinister grinding drum loop. Even more arresting is “Today’s Lesson,” a song about a truth-telling and streetwise adolescent girl who innocently preys on older men, and a desperate and confused traveler looking for peace of mind as he roams the misbegotten small towns of America in “Albert Goes West.”

Despite Cave doing his best preening front man pose throughout much of the album, there is no shortage of variety as the band wanders through Door-ish lounge rock (“Moonland”), smoldering spaghetti Western Americana (“Hold On to Yourself”) and wistfully swaying balladry (“Midnight Man”). And unlike the snarling boors he brought to life on the Grinderman album, here Cave inhabits a wider range of characters and moods than on almost any album in his catalog. His gallows humor, his eye for detail, his ugly wisdom – they’re all present in more or less the same measures that they were on his classic releases. But unlike 20 years ago, Cave has nothing left to prove beyond the fact that he still has something to say. And while the audacity of youth has hardened into the confidence that comes with experience, he shows no signs of being so beholden to his conflicted preacher persona that he won’t allow himself to play different characters. For an artist who a few years ago had been in danger of getting too comfortable with his craft, to be able to increase his stylistic range without stumbling into rote genre experiments or conceptual gimmicky is a true test of his creative mettle.

Strangely, because the album is so straightforward and visceral, it inadvertently comes off a bit slight by comparison, as Cave’s wild man persona seems incompatible with his later life as a baleful bard. But rock and roll suits Cave well, and as he and the Bad Seeds had followed their darker muses to their natural conclusions, there was no sense in continuing to stir up the same ghosts album after album. And while the album doesn’t hit as hard or as consistently as, say, Kicking Against the Pricks or No More Shall We Part, it’s an album with no less depth or complexity, and like those releases it’s an album that reveals its secrets only after many listens. The odds are against him, but at 50, Nick Cave might be just getting started.

Favoring live-in-the-studio production values, the album has a distinctly intimate and tangible feel, allowing unscripted song banter and stray blasts of guitar feedback to bubble under the surface. Still, those touches will be lost without good speakers and a set of headphones, as Cave’s vocals and organ are high enough in the mix to dominate most arrangements. Neither retro nor modern, it’s simply a great sounding record, one that is perfectly suited to bring out the textural and emotional range of material Cave and his bandmates explore.

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