Nick Cave has lurked in the rock shadows for two decades, deliberately seeking the margins, it seems, rather than the blinding glare of the spotlight. Yet his strategy—more accidental than contrived—has continued to draw moths to his flame. His erratic and eclectic course has moulded the sort of quixotic cult reputation that many a bigger rock star—Michael Stipe or Bono, even—might envy. The Australian-born singer has comfortably evaded the prying eyes of the celebrity paparazzi, yet managed to secure an enduring status within the fraternity of contemporary music-makers.
He has walked a bohemian tightrope, singed by the sort of indulgent poisons which infiltrate that nether world, mingled with the avant garde fringe, collaborated with a gallery of pop icons and, along the way, managed to secure a credible literary reputation for his prose and his poetry. From Melbourne to the more cosmopolitan stages of London, Berlin and LA, Cave has marked out a wide territory.
With the Birthday Party—a Harold Pinter reference?—and then latterly with the Bad Seeds, Cave’s rock odyssey has carried him from the dripping cellars of punk to the diabolic gestures of Goth, from the dark cabaret ballad to stewardship of one of the UK’s major celebrations of cutting edge creativity, the Meltdown Festival, a task he successfully undertook in 1999.
But Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds have remained the performer’s most serviceable vehicle and with No More Shall We Part, the band provide, remarkably, an eleventh album, some four years after their previous collection of original material, although a wide-ranging Best of did interrupt that silence.
While the Bad Seeds project has retained a musical spine, the personnel have been reasonably fluid—Mick Harvey survives from the Birthday Party days, but numerous faces have joined the cast since 1983—and the most interesting addition to the current incarnation is that of the McGarrigle Sisters, Kate and Anna, whose vocal powers as a duet were well-known in folk rock circles of the latter 1970s but who might not have been expected to associate with the sleazier downtown denizens.
Not that McGarrigles get their hands too dirty: their lighter voices subtly underpin some of the tracks—“Sweetheart Come”, for example—but the focus of this musical menu is Cave himself. His clear, yet rather colourless, intonation is the centrepiece of the collection, reminiscent of a more melodramatic Scott Walker, a less flamboyant Marc Almond. The songs are like Victorian cameos: tales recounted as candles flicker, snow falls outside a ice-trimmed window, just as a sinister creak lends tension to the imaginary scene.
Ultimately, this is deeply maudlin mood music: vivid but melancholic, skilfully compiled with a literate quality to the lyrical description—references to saints and angels, Damoclean swords and the spear of destiny—but easily resisted by listeners with a fragment of the upbeat to their nature. And there’s no real opportunity to counter that the album’s rock muscle lends compensating excitement. With few exceptions—the climax of “The Sorrowful Wife”, for instance—the aural setting is built on minor key strings, plaintive piano, sluggish tempos, and that dominating Cave voice.
No More Shall We Part may work as a staged song cycle for a vampish chanteur—Grand Guignol gestures, chiaroscuro lighting, rose tattoos, dark and doomed romance—but as a sequence of works for CD, the tone is too monochrome, too miserable in short, for all but those completely immersed in the mysteries of Cave’s morose vision. This release sustains the mythology but is unlikely to add too many new fans.