by Michael Goldberg
Monday, February 17, 2003
Nick Cave Steps Into The Light
He once sang "murder ballads"; now he's singing love songs
In case you haven't noticed, in the 20-plus years since Nick Cave first appeared on our radar as a singer in the raucous Melbourne, Australia-based combo the Birthday Party, he's gotten really good. For starters, he learned how to sing, and to write songs with strong melodies and even stronger lyrics. He's gone from the chaotic punk squall of "The Friend Catcher" and "Mr. Clarinet" to such refined, mature works as "Wonderful Life" and "Dead Man in My Bed," which appear on the latest Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds album, Nocturama.
That Nick Cave is no longer a fucked-up twentysomething with a hard drug problem seems to bother some of his old fans, who long for more of the old, wild and wicked Nick Cave.
Me, I like the 2003 version of Nick Cave just fine.
Cave is now a married man, living in London. He takes his work seriously, approaches songwriting like a job he loves. Each day he heads to a rented office where he does what all serious writers do: he writes. On his latest album, he writes about being in love, and about the commitments you make to the one you love. It's an optimistic album and coming from Nick Cave, that means something.
Cave (one hopes) makes a fairly decent living as a recording/touring musician these days. Too many once-promising musicians can't make much of a living following their muse. Just to survive they have to make all kinds of compromises. Some get dispirited and lose the spark that once made their work so engaging.
Cave, who plays piano and Hammond organ, seems to be thriving artistically. It's just that he's not making the same album that he made 15, 10 or even four years ago. Those old albums are, for the most part, pretty great and I dug Cave when he was a noisy punk. But like some of his influences Van Morrison, Bob Dylan Cave has followed his own path. I have the feeling that even as a member of the Birthday Party he wished he could be Bob Dylan; it's just that now, after years of refining his writing while recording numerous albums, he's actually got a shot at it.
And let's not forget that his albums are attributed to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. His band Mick Harvey and Blixa Bargeld on guitars (and a few other instruments), percussionists Thomas Wydler and Jim Sclavunos, bassist Martyn Casey and violinist Warren Ellis (also a member of the Dirty Three) have become skilled, subtle musicians adept at providing just the right atmosphere for Cave's words.
I'm not one of those veteran Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds fans who have sworn by him since the days of the Birthday Party. I saw an early version of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds bring down the house at a now long-defunct San Francisco club, the I-Beam, in the early '80s. I remember thinking that Cave and company's sound at the time reminded me of Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band.
I've dug some of Cave's albums through the years. Still, sometimes his Dracula scary voice and at-times-horrific lyrics put me off. He was one of those "interesting" artists whose albums I kept and would occasionally listen to when the mood hit.
Things came to a head with 1996's Murder Ballads. It was quite a concept. An entire album featuring Cave taking the role of various psychos, singing about killing and/or raping women, children and, during one song, a man. That album is fascinating because the performances are quite beautiful, contrasting starkly with the stories being told. It's one of the darkest albums I've ever heard, an album bereft of hope or light.
Nocturama is different. I've been listening to it for several months now. It's still too soon to tell, but I think it's one that I'll go back to year after year, just as I go back to certain Dylan and Van Morrison albums. Like the contemporary Nick Cave himself, it's really good one of the best albums I've listened to during the past six months.
"Wonderful Life," the first track, sets the tone here. The song is a piano-driven ballad, a musically mournful song that is, surprisingly, optimistic. "Come in, babe," Cave begins, backed just by piano, and the welcome extends to anyone who wants to give this album a serious listen. "Across these purple fields/ The sun has sunk behind you/ Across these purple fields.../ Come on, admit it, babe...."
And then Cave arrives at the chorus. He sings each line differently. At times stretching out the words, or clamping down hard on them: "It's a wonderful life/ If you can find it/ If you can find it/If you can find it/ It's a wonderful life that you bring/ Ooh it's a wonderful thing."
Cave is leveling with us here, right at the outset. Yeah, life is wonderful, he states. Or at least it can be. But it's not easy. And no one is gonna hand that "wonderful life" to you. It's something you have to seek out, to uncover. Each of our lives is unique, and many of us (in the U.S. and Europe at least) can make choices. We can choose the seemingly easy route or we can search for something more.
But to simply complain about what a drag things are is ridiculous, pathetic.. Dig the song's third verse: "We can build our dungeons in the air/ And sit and cry the blues/ We can stomp across this world/ With nails hammered through our shoes/ We can join that troubled chorus/ Who criticize and accuse/ It don't matter much/ We got nothing much to lose/ But this wonderful life."
There's a reason quite a few of the songs here are ballads. Cave wants us to hear his words. He has something to say and he doesn't want it to get lost amid loud rock 'n' roll. But he's also worked to make an album with mood changes. The rockers the mid-tempo "Bring It On" and the furious "Dead Man in My Bed" are even more powerful coming after the beautiful ballad "Right Out of Your Hand," and before "Still in Love."
The highlight of the album is the five-plus-minute-long "Bring It On," a duet with Chris Bailey, once singer for the Brisbane punk outfit The Saints.. The song opens with a quiet rhythm and Ellis offering an opening motif on violin. The song is a promise of fidelity, commitment and support. "This garden that I built for you," Cave begins, "That you sit in now and yearn/ I will never leave it, dear/ I could not bear to return/ And find it all untended/ With the trees all bended low/ This garden is our home, dear/ And I got nowhere else to go."
Though the pace is moderate, the song builds and builds in intensity, particularly in the chorus, which Cave and Bailey sing together, and which they repeat over and over for the finale. The first time they sing these words: "So bring it on/ Bring it on/ Every little tear/ Bring it on/ Every useless fear/ Bring it on/ All your shattered dreams/ And I'll scatter them into the sea/ Into the sea."
What a beautiful image: Nick Cave, scattering the useless fears and tears and shattered dreams into the sea. Nick Cave, being there for somebody.