Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
, August 6th, 2012 11:20
This is where it gets complicated.
To have it right, more complicated. If one could portray the oeuvre of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds in abstract graphic form, it might resemble a wayward, asymmetrical version of one of those fractal animations from the rave era, unfolding over time from a simple glowing core into ever more intricate flourishes. Until, that is, the last of these reissues and their most recent album, Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!, zaps it back to the core with an enormously satisfying crackle.
It might have been tidier had this final set of re-releases opened with No More Shall We Part, wherein Cave returned from a reputed drink-, drug- and Polly Harvey-induced hiatus with a record that introduced the next phase of the Bad Seeds (veering between bloodhound-faced ballads and rambunctious waistcoated baroque; blending the monstrous with the tasteful.) It could then have proceeded via Nocturama, and closed with Abattoir Blues/The Lyre Of Orpheus. That seems more a natural trilogy. Whereas Lazarus..., despite Cave's own disavowal, fits neatly - in atmosphere, themes and chronology, if not in sound - between the first, feral Grinderman album its psychedelic follow-up.
Then again, among the Bad Seeds' many qualities, seldom is tidiness to be found dusting its fastidious lapels. For that we may thank whichever ragged imp of a muse periodically needles them into the studio. When they reconvened for Nocturama, it drove them to record the thing in a matter of days. Or so the accompanying mini-documentary (there's one on each reissued album) has it. Nocturama doesn't sound that way. For the most part it sounds sombre, measured and - in the curious way these things have of coming full circle - more than a little like Tindersticks. (The Tindersticks of old, that is, not the revamped Tindersticks of The Hungry Saw and Falling Down A Mountain.) Which is no bad thing, far from it, but rather odd - the masters becoming the pupil, and so forth.
It's an odd record altogether - something of an in-betweener, in retrospect. It isn't as stark or heart-on-sleeve as its immediate predecessors. Nor does it build a head of steam the way the following releases do. It has lovely things on it - of course it does, this is the Bad Seeds - but you'd be flummoxed if you tried to pin some kind of fundamental character onto it, as you usually can with their albums.
If you care to - again, as with all the reissued Bad Seeds material - you may listen to a 5.1 Surround Sound or DTS version via the DVD. This may enhance your enjoyment of or insight into Nocturama. Despite my possessing a suitably equipped player, all it enhanced for me is the opinion that 5.1 Surround Sound and DTS are a stifling waste of noise. The CD is an unjustly disdained format, and the standard stereo mix is just dandy, ta.
It gets dandier on the double set Abattoir Blues/The Lyre Of Orpheus, the nearest thing the Bad Seeds have ever made to an out-and-out rollicking pop record. It's brash, joyous, stuffed to the gunwales with hooks and choruses, and funny. Really funny. Murder Ballads funny. It's also the first thing they made after Blixa Bargeld left, creating "a different energy", apparently. Now, I defer to no one in my regard for the corrosive guitar work the chap sprayed across twenty years of Bad Seeds records, but if it took his departure to jolly things along a bit, I'd say it was no empty sacrifice.
Reviewing it on its release, I wrote "No other Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds LP has betrayed its sources so freely; even so, Cave cannot help but sound exactly like himself." Which bears repeating, if only because I can't rephrase it better. Gospel and funk (The Bad Seeds are never funky, but here they are at times funk-ish), Dylan and Scott Walker, Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel (try telling me 'Nature Boy' isn't an, um, hommage to 'Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me)' - go on, just try) all are chucked into the pot and stewed to a bubbling savour. Here The Bad Seeds were something they hadn't been for a while: honest-to-God - or rather, two-fingers-up-to-God, which is honesty enough - fun.
If Abattoir Blues/The Lyre Of Orpheus saw the band's veins running with piss, vinegar and cane sugar, Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! infused that mixture with lava. The initial Grinderman album, which in the five years since its release has become one of my favourite things ever, set the mood: volatile, ribald, scabrous, hilarious. Cave had by now regenerated as a bizarre, gangling hybrid of Llewelyn Moss and Mr Kidd, and having hurled himself into the garage with the other Grindermen, came galloping back out with his teeth on fire and smoke pouring through his ears.
Lazarus... where to begin? It was only four years ago, so it's not as if you're likely to have forgotten. But in case you've retrieved this review from some improbably preserved server in a future wherein civilisation has either (a) collapsed, or (b) occurred, then this album will function, either way, as a quite delicious told-you-so. In its swaggering absurdism, its lewd self-mockery, its cantankerous glee, it is a piece of work that wallows in its own exuberant contradictions. Literary devices? By the skipload. Scorn for literary devices? Sweltering with it. Derision for our myths and mores? Plenty, and then some. Ridicule for the iconoclastic posturing with which we attack them? There you go. Prolix, prolix... well, when in Rome.
Most albums, you'll allow, which attempted synapse-popping cerebration with a cock-swinging leer, would likely induce you to frisbee them out of the window in the faint hope of scoring a long-odds hit on somebody involved in the making of them. This one is liable to leave you grinning like a priapic chimp. When it isn't doing salacious, it can do eerie, too, on 'Jesus Of The Moon'; while on 'Hold On To Yourself' and 'Midnight Man', it accomplishes both.
Accomplishment, come to mention it, is a big part of all these records. Usually, one thinks of "accomplished" as a euphemism for bland proficiency, and with good reason. Not here. The Bad Seeds always were one hell of a band. Over time, and shifting line-ups, they have also become a formidable set of players. Very few acts succeed at growing old both gracefully and disgracefully. Just one more of the many paradoxes that make this lot as endlessly captivating as they are.