By Courtney Harrell
By Kyra Scrimgeour
By Jena Ardell
By Mary Willson
By Bree Davies
By Tom Murphy
By Tom Murphy
By A.H. Goldstein
There's a perception in this great land of ours that masterful singer-songwriter Nick Cave makes depressing music. But, as Cave points out, this opinion isn't universally held.
"It's always Americans who say that," he allows. He chuckles before adding, "The French never do."
Is this an example of what cultural historians may one day refer to as the Jerry Lewis Effect? Not quite -- but Cave, an Australian living in England, and Lewis, as red, white and blue a goofball as we've got, have more in common than just the undying respect and adoration of Francophiles everywhere. For instance, both sport a sense of humor that can blacken in an instant. But whereas Lewis's material conceals its twisted nature within a cloak of mirth, Cave's songs regularly reverse the formula, burying the laughter beneath an outwardly serious, occasionally fierce surface. Most U.S. critics interpreted Murder Ballads, a 1996 disc made with his band, the Bad Seeds, as aural Grand Guignol of an especially solemn sort. In Cave's view, though, the album "is quite comic. I've never had so much fun making a record, because we never really took it seriously. It was such a dumb idea to begin with. Clearly, I'd been writing murder ballads for years, so for me to turn around and do a whole album of them was sort of perverse right from the outset. And because of that, it was incredibly enjoyable to do."
Since then, however, Cave has cut back on the elaborate artifice that marks Ballads and its many predecessors in favor of something unexpected: self-revelation. Indeed, The Boatman's Call, from 1998, is a thinly veiled recounting of the end of Cave's relationships with his wife, Viviane Carneiro, and vocalist PJ Harvey. "Black Hair," replete with couplets such as "All my tears cried against her milk-white throat/Hidden behind the curtain of her beautiful black hair," is almost painfully intimate thanks to the unanticipated tenderness of Cave's trademark baritone.
No More Shall We Part, due for release in April on Mute Records, a subsidiary of Reprise, continues in this exceedingly rich vein. Cave, supplemented by the current version of the Bad Seeds (Mick Harvey, Blixa Bargeld, Thomas Wydler, Martyn Casey, Conway Savage, Jim Sclavunos and Warren Ellis), surveys the terrain between romance at its most idealized and the furthest extremes of heartbreak with, alternately, a poet's eye and a masochist's touch. Witness the shift in mood from "Love Letter," a gorgeous act of paper-and-pen desperation in which the narrator begs the missive to do his bidding ("Go get her, go get her," he urges it), to "The Sorrowful Wife," which begins with an almost clinical look at a woman whose passions have shriveled in the dry wind of disappointment and ends with a tormented Cave bellowing that he's been a blind fool.
These seemingly discordant emotions are bound together with the help of a sweeping musical tapestry dominated by keyboards, strings, the lovely background vocals of guest stars Kate and Anna McGarrigle, and probably the best singing of Cave's career. About this last achievement, Cave says, "I think the way the album was recorded had a lot to do with that. For all the songs on the record, I was just sitting there playing the piano and singing at the same time, and the band was playing with me. This meant simply that I couldn't concentrate as much on the singing as I have in the past -- so the singing's much more natural, it's lighter, it's less mannered. There's just less thought in it, and that allows the words to kind of live and speak for themselves."
And speak they do, frequently via recurring lyrical imagery that causes the songs to bounce off one another, their meanings intensifying as a result. Better still, Cave consistently embraces contradictions rather than attempting to erase them. "Darker With the Day," the CD's final track, is riddled with bitterly droll remarks ("I thought of my friends who had died of exposure/And I thought about the ones who had died from the lack of it") and madman-on-the-corner ranting (Cave catalogues a parade of "amateurs, dilettantes, hacks, cowboys [and] clones" before noting, "The streets grow with Little Caesars, Napoleons and cunts"). But at regular intervals, he drops the attitude to gently croon the most sincere of choruses: "It seems so long since you've been gone..."
No More revolves around the oppositional themes of "safety and threat," Cave says. "There seems to be a kind of fear of the corrosiveness of the outside world going on with this record, but there seem to be some very safe havens as well, like the home and the workplace." And the ambiguities don't stop there.
"To me, it's important that a song has within it a lot of conflicting things," Cave continues, "and I think music is very special in the sense that there can be a lot going on in a song. There's the voice and the tone of voice, the music, the lyrics, and so on -- and they all have an emotional language of their own that is often separate, giving songs the power of putting across all sorts of feelings at one time. The other arts don't really have that quality, or they don't have it in the same way. And I value that, because for me the songs I write that last -- that last for a long time -- are the ones that have this kind of depth. For example, the love songs that have at their core an ache. I like that element about what I do."