On the masterful Let Love In, he concentrates on the conflict and heartbreak that so often comes with love, particularly on the title track: “Despair and deception/Love´s ugly little twin/Came knocking on my door/I let them in” reminiscent of William Blake´s “There is a smile of love and a smile of deceit/ And a smile of smiles where the two smiles meet.” On the follow up, the breakthrough Murder Ballads, he steps back and makes fun of all he´s said so far, taking obsessive love to its logical conclusion. Once the dust had settled in O´Malleys bar and Loretta was safely locked up, Cave came out with his saddest and yet most romantic album, The Boatman´s Call, supposedly about his withdrawal from PJ Harvey and heroin. Moments of tenderness abound, from lying in bed with a loved one not reading the Sunday papers, to going to church thankful for another day. And then, inevitably, it all falls apart again, the dream cannot last, and it concludes with the singer saying: Then leave me to my enemied dreams/ And be quiet as you are leaving, Miss.”
A venom rarely heard in popular music
After the release of Boatman´s Call, Nick Cave suggested that he might never make another album, as he had nothing more to say in song. Instead, he would grow tomatoes and write a book. But he still had one statement left to make. After a four year hiatus, his longest so far, he returned with No More Shall We Part, perhaps his greatest work. At first it sounded familiar, but once you start to peel the layers away you perhaps come closer to the black heart of Nick Cave than ever before. In the beautiful opening track, “As I Sat Sadly By Her Side,” he sits with a girl who marvels at the wonders of the world, before correcting her by pointing out its horrors, reducing her to tears. Here, finally, was Nick Caves ode to sorrow. Every step is laced with tragedy “I thought I´d take a walk today/ A mistake I sometimes make” In that very song, “Oh My Lord,” he tears at his audience (“They called at me through the fence/They weren´t making any sense”), himself (“Someone cries what are you looking for/ I scream “the plot, the plot””) and the notion of stardom (“The tears you are crying now/ Are just your answered prayers”) with a venom rarely seen in popular music or, in fact, anywhere. And in the rubble of this deconstruction Nick Cave finally found true greatness. He had always been imitator rather than innovator. But he did imitate the best, and he did it very well. Now, finally, he was ready to take his place among the greats. But he did not remain there very long.
From a glimpse to blindness
After a couple of stunning concerts in Hótel Ísland, the bar was set higher than ever for all of us fortunate enough to be present. Still, one was willing to forgive him the opening track of his new album, “Wonderful Life.” Everyone deserves a bit of happiness every now and then, even Nick Cave. But the remaining nine songs breeze by without bothering anyone were much, and are not even as effective as celebrations as his previous glimpses of joy.
For this was more than a glimpse. Nick Cave was happy now. He was newly married, the father of twins, and between the hours of nine and five he went to the office and wrote songs. He was not the first man to sacrifice his genius for happiness. His final reckoning with sadness on No More Shall We Part also seemed to be his final brush with greatness. Or was it?
Anyone can be forgiven a bad album every now and then. When news came out that Nick Cave was releasing a double album, expectations ran high he was making amends. Was the memory of Nocturama was to be erased by a twin masterpiece?
Songs with a happy ending
Some of the first indications were not good. Blixa Bargeld, who, on his time off from Einstuerzende Neubauten was a vital part of the Bad Seeds sound, departed, perhaps realising that his old master had nothing more to offer. And in an interview in Word Magazine, Cave said that his lead single “Nature Boy” was the type of song which would previously have been relegated to B-Side. When only three years earlier he could afford to throw away masterpieces such as “Grief Came Riding” on flip sides, now they were not only lead singles, “Nature Boy” sadly also manages to be the best song on the promisingly titled but ultimately disappointing Abattoir Blues.
Once he has gotten through telling us to get ready for love, Cave continues with “Most of all, nothing ever really happens.” In his office in Brighton, you mean? Meanwhile, outside his window the world had indeed gone to war. Things do not get better with “Cannibal´s Hymn” (another bloody title perhaps meant to disguise blandness), probably the most embarrasing thing he has yet committed to plastic. Before the first verse is through he´s rhymed “unlock you” with “defrock you” and even trumping that with “rock you.” It gets worse still in the chorus: “If you´re gonna dine with them cannibals/ Sooner or later you´re gonna get eaten.” He then moves on to a Cohen quote, sitting like a bird on a fence before making a halfhearted apology to the listener with “I will…sing you songs with a happy ending/ Swoop down and tell you that it don´t make much sense/ To attack the very thing you´re defending.” It is only on the third song, “Hiding All Away,” that he makes a reference to the current events that recently inspired Tom Waits to make his best album in a decade. This he does in the form of another Cohen quote; “There is a war…coming.”
The fine art of eloquent pornography
“Messiah Ward” includes the chorus “bringing out the dead,” the very same words that inspired the previously infallible Martin Scorsese to make his first bad film, and Cave does little better, waxing poetical with: “We could navigate our position by the stars/ But they´ve taken out the stars,” before adding “The stars have all gone,” in case you missed the point. “There She Goes, My Beautiful World,” begins like an introduction to botany: “The wintergreen, the juniper/ the cornflower and the chicory” Nick Cave then utilises every trick available to the poet out of words, a female choir and an endless succession of name dropping from Johnny Thunders to Gaughin, and almost gets away with it.
He moves on to the suspiciosly single-like single “Nature Boy.” But at least he´s trying here. The first verse, about a boy watching the horrors on the news, his father telling him not to look away but still to believe in the triumph of beauty, is kind of cute. And the second verse, when he discovers desire, reads like a prequel to “Let Love In.” “You said hey nature boy, are you looking at me with some unrightous intention…/I was having thoughts it was not in my best interest to mention.” It is only in the third verse that he looses it, with “You played the patriot, raised the flag and I stood at full salute.” Cave still has a lot to learn from Cohen on the art of being an eloquent pornographer. And the song also includes the second reference on the album to Sappho. Perhaps he´s watching too much lesbian porn at the office?
God and splatter
The second album starts more promisingly, with a splatterfest version of the Orpheus myth. God gets a cameo, cruel as always, “a major player in heaven,” and splatters Orpheus´ brains all over the place. In his heyday, Cave would throw away better lines on a Batman soundtrack “What about God and his Armageddon/ He´s all blissed out up in heaven,” the Lord not even caring enough to come back and destroy us all as he promised. But this, at least, is interesting. And Cave is having fun rather than singing about it, rhyming “pluck” with “f…oh my God” and “Orfeus” with “orifice.” We here see some of the vindictive rage that has made Nick Cave one of the most interesting artists of the past 20 years. But by the second song, the single “Breathless” (wasn´t that a Madonna song?) he´s all blissed out again, singing about the birds and the bees. He´s still on about birds in “Babe, You Turn Me On,” a lesser cousin of “Babe, I Got You Bad” and the funny-once “Babe, I´m on Fire,” before he gets pornographic again, putting “one hand on your round ripe heart/ And another down your panties,” a bit more graphic than one might have hoped.
The business end of the gun is pointed in the singers direction in “Easy Money,” about the trials and tribulations of having more money than most. Self indulgent, but amusing. One would hope this would lead to the same self examination that in the past yielded such wonderful works, but no, having gotten the guilt of the rich off his chest, he goes on about how happy he is. And on and on and on. Yes, love can surely feel supernatural and like a spell, but the tragedy here is that Nick Cave seems to have very little left to say on the subject.
Nick Cave has often said that he likes the latterday works of past masters, to see them past their prime. It´s his turn now. And it is a testament to his great talent that even at his worst he still manages to be more interesting than most. Still, with a bland single album and then a bland double to follow, one worries that his days as a creative artist may be over. But my god what a run he had.