With Nocturama, Nick Cave has finally hit the dreaded "middle period" of a long-term artist's career (and given how few long-term artists are left in rock these days, just being one is quite an accomplishment). What to do when you've drunk all the booze, done all the drugs, fucked all the groupies, given all those vices up and then embraced them all over again? Finally, if you haven't died, like ol' Jimbo Morrison or Brian "Godstar" Jones, or become a grotesque Reality TV creature, like Ozzy Osbourne or Henry Rollins, there is little left except to embrace the niceties of the bourgeois lifestyle. Or so it seems, anyway.
These days, if what we are being told via his interviews is accurate, Nick Cave leads a very "professional" existence as a literary, bookish man with a wife and a couple kids, who actually goes to his own office every day in order to work industriously on his lyric writing. On his last record, 2001's No More Shall We Part, this worked to his advantage, as that album's emotional power was provided by lyrics that hinted at another period of intense dissipation a mid-life crisis, if you will which was finally overcome in part through the love the singer had discovered with his new wife and resultant domestic bliss.
Nocturama, however, finds Cave quite settled in and healthy, with little to complain about. Given his generally gloomy nature and after all, he's made a good career out of exploring it this doesn't stop him from trying. He plays with this theme in the opener, a nice mid-tempo piano ballad ironically called "Wonderful Life," and ponders just surrendering, Zen-like, to life's many travails: "Sometimes it's wise to lay down your gloves/ And just give in," Cave counsels mournfully, "To this wonderful life/ If you can find it." The fact that the former Birthday Party's bard of bedlam sounds as if his dog has just died while he sings these words suggests that the verdict on this strategy is still out, for him at least. Or maybe the song is merely a sad admission that this old dog has run out of new tricks for the time being.
As Nocturama progresses, one of the problems that becomes evident is that of pacing, a hitch that also marred the last tour by Cave and his ace backing group, the Bad Seeds (including longtime stalwarts Mick Harvey and Blixa Bargeld, who are again underutilized here, as they have been generally since 1996's Let Love In). Cave began to re-fashion himself as a Leonard Cohen for the post-punk set as far back as 1997's The Boatman's Call (still an album of contention among Cave devotees), and his propensity for morose, piano-led love balladry has increasingly jarred against the more raucous material from his back catalogue, both in the studio and the concert hall.
Here, for instance, after the opener, we are lulled into submission by two increasingly slow country-rock ballads, "He Wants You," which sounds like an outtake from The Boatman's Call, and the downright funereal "Right Out of Your Hand" (in which the Dirty Three's Warren Ellis' lachrymose violin sounds increasingly like a tired, formulaic device Cave uses to emotionally buttress his more pedestrian ballads, as it does again later on "She Passed by My Window").
Then, suddenly, when the listener is ready nod off (and not from Cave's former drug of choice), comes sonic salvation. "Bring It On" (a duet with Chris Bailey, once singer for the Brisbane punk outfit The Saints) is a sprightly, pop-ish number with a dynamic chorus; it might have been better served by being placed at the start of the album. Here, the singer manages to add an edge to Nocturama's general thematic concern with his newfound domestic life, painting a portrait of two people very much in love with each other, but also, at the same time, very much stuck with each other: the Catch-22 of every long-term relationship. "Ah, you're trembling still/ And I am trembling too/ To be perfectly honest I don't know/ Quite what else to do," Cave sings, before adding defiantly, "So bring it on."
Likewise, the rocking "Dead Man in My Bed" recalls the ferocity of the early Bad Seeds, lyrically detailing the loss of passion that comes with marital familiarity (and also hinting at a relapse into the indolence and impotence of the heavy narcotics user) with the black sense of humor that Cave fans know and love: "Now she's in the kitchen, rattling those pots and pans/ I'd cook him something nice, she said, but he refuses to wash his hands/ He used to be so good to me, now he smells so fucking bad/ There is a dead man in my bed, she said." Great stuff here.
Unfortunately, after those highlights, Nocturama falls off considerably. "Still in Love" is a intriguing ballad dealing with the singer's past transgressions, possibly addressing an old lover (PJ Harvey?) with the frank admission, "Call me up baby and I'll answer your call . . . but remember I am no use to you at all." The mid-paced "There Is a Town," however, lacks focus and seems unfinished, as does the generic love ballad "Rock of Gibraltar," which, though it alludes to the mutability time causes within even the most solid of romantic couplings, still seems ironic when one considers that Cave used to gleefully bump off more women per song than any other singer in the history of rock 'n' roll.
Then, suddenly, after Ellis' maudlin violin has lulled us back to snooze-land during the aforementioned "She Passed by My Window," jarringly comes the album's supposed revelation: the nearly 15-minute long "Babe, I'm on Fire." Given the previous sentiments of "Dead Man in My Bed," it seems that someone must have slipped ol' Nick a few hits of Viagra before the band took off on this extended jam, as he proceeds to enumerate the ways in which the Dionysian urge motivates the world: "The sports commentator says it/ The old alligator says it/ The tennis pro with his racquet/ The loon in the straitjacket/ Babe, I'm on fire/ Babe, I'm on fire," the singer informs us, ad-libbing ad infinitum.
Well, at least until the Viagra wears off.
All kidding aside, one does wonder what the point of this extended final exercise is a recompense to the band for putting up with all those piano ballads? "Proof" that the animal that raged within the Cave of the Birthday Party is still alive and well in that still-skinny frame? If so, then why not let him off the leash in more measured doses throughout the album, rather than trying to "make up" to all those looking for the edgier version of Cave via one overlong track at the end? The result here seems too much like an apology of sorts.
Nick Cave, no mistake about it, is still a major talent, and Nocturama isn't nearly as bad a mid-career flop as Lou Reed's Mistrial or David Bowie's Never Let Me Down, two of the more ironically-titled albums in the history of rock. But nevertheless, this is also far from essential Nick Cave, as most longtime fans will immediately discern. Perhaps Nick should take a cue from his idol Scott Walker, and take a lot of time before deciding to release his next set of new material. But then, Walker still lives the bohemian existence that Cave has seemingly left behind. Office space in London costs a lot of money, you know.