Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds
hroughout his solo career, Nick Cave has belonged to the illustrious three: himself, Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen, three of the only outsider singer-songwriters to make a substantial, relatively mainstream living off of their art. True originals, Cave, Waits and Cohen create worlds of tenderness and torture, and when you put on one of their records, they own you. They create rich, deep, album-length worlds in which their skills as musicians are challenged only by their poetry and singular voices. Cave’s last album, 2001’s No More Shall We Part, put him above both Waits’ and Cohen’s recent output; a masterpiece of warmth and patience crafted by a man at the height of his creative powers. With that album -- that career highlight -- not two years old, the inconsistent, surprisingly tepid Nocturama comes as a blistering shock and heartbreaking disappointment. The illustrious three Cave seems to be running with these days is himself, Steve Earle and Bruce Springsteen, a trio of greats wasting their energy and genius on material that is completely beneath them.Earle and Springsteen can blame 9/11 for their recent duds. Cave has no such excuse.
Nocturama’s ten songs are mostly ballads, a song form Cave has a proven mastery of, and yet all but one of those ballads is wholly ineffective. The music is sparse and simple, forcing focus upon the lyrics, which, for the first time are riddled with clichés. “Wonderful Life” opens the album with a total lack of fireworks. No dynamics with which to excite, no lead instruments with which to captivate, and an unsure vocal performance that finds Cave mumbling with a total lack of confidence, a strange affliction that plagues the first few songs on the album. The music is tasteful as always, but dry. Cave’s Bad Seeds are a wonderful, well-honed band -- they can make darkness impenetrable and beauty indescribable -- but when asked to play ordinary material, that ordinariness is pounded home with every note.
“Ordinary” is a compliment for many of these songs. “He Wants You” is safe and tired, the tale of a sailor adrift on the ocean that is as plain and predictable as the tender piano that nudges it along. “Right Out of Your Hand” is another song harmed by cliché, but its fabulous vocal harmonies and touching violin (courtesy of Dirty Three’s Warren Ellis) come close to redeeming it. “There is a Town” is the only solemn track that provides a spark, a slow, trudging tale of deflated dreams and homesickness in which longing is captured by the violin, wandering by the piano and truth by the guitar. Unfortunately, “Town” is bookended by “Still In Love” and “Rock of Gibraltar”, two very disappointing, whitewashed tales of dead love that deserve to be better. “Still In Love” begins darkly but is quickly bleached by middle of the road refrains and choruses; “Rock of Gibraltar” is a throwaway.
Nocturama’s non-ballads don’t help the album. One is terrible, one is alright, one is fifteen minutes long. “Bring it On” is as bad as its title would suggest: AOR-ready pony-tail rock and easily one of the most bafflingly bad songs any talented artist has ever recorded. Sounding out of touch, old and polished to a garish sheen, “Bring it On” sounds like the reunion of some forgotten 70s AM radio band. “Dead Man In My Bed” is furious in comparison, but only slightly better. Keyboards blare, guitars clang and Cave delivers some great lines about ambivalence and dehydrating love, but the music, loud as it is, lacks depth and all lyrical mystery is destroyed by the smoothly harmonized “we’ve got to get it all together” refrain near the song’s end.
All that remains is “Babe I’m On Fire”, all fifteen minutes and 39 stanzas of it. Propelled by a great bassline, “Babe” is relentless, invigorated/invigorating, jittery post-punk filled with blistering guitar noise and Cave’s trademark flailing, but to play it for fifteen minutes is near ridiculous. The lyrics are incredible -- clever, all encompassing and imaginative, with a scope and grasp of rhyme that is nothing if not perfect -- but they would be just as good without the music. Take the lyrics away, however, and you’re left with some pretty meaningless, repetitive fury. More ambitious and exciting than anything else on Nocturama, “Babe” is still difficult to adore.
While not ruinously bad and not enough to destroy his legacy, Nocturama certainly calls into question Nick Cave’s future. There is flatness where once there was majesty; there is garbage where once there was gold. Until his next album is released, Cave will reside in limbo, where only he can decide which triumvirate he belongs to.
Reviewed by: Clay Jarvis
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01