Nearly 25 years of virtually scoring musical accompaniment to the Old Testament can take a lot out of anyone, even someone with as gothic a pedigree as Nick Cave. Since his first recordings with The Birthday Party, Australia’s darkest son has made a well-documented career of his fixation with the sordid details underlying all facets of human life. Building his persona from equal parts fractured troubadour and epic poet, Cave has assembled a body of work that’s as compelling for its literary narrative as it is for its brooding musical sensibilities.
However, a new Nick Cave release has increasingly become somewhat of a non-event — not in the sense that his records suck (quite the contrary in most cases), but more so that you pretty much know what to expect. The thrill of Cave’s truly great albums comes not from any radical innovations on his part, but rather from the nuances of how he chooses to meet those expectations each time out. Even as recently as his last recording — 2001’s No More Shall We Part — Cave temporarily expanded the Bad Seeds payroll to enlist backing vocalists Kate and Anna McGarrigle as part of a band that had already swelled to include Dirty Three violinist Warren Ellis and Sonic Youth drummer-for-a-minute Jim Sclavunos, a move that resulted in one of the most brilliant juxtapositions of torment and beauty in Cave’s entire oeuvre.
But just when you think you’ve got him pegged, Cave up and decides he’s spending too much time on his records, inks a new US distribution deal with Anti/Epitaph and calls the Bad Seeds together for a marathon blast of a studio session. The fruits of that March 2002 intensive comprise Nocturama, the first in what’s promised as a series of more spontaneous/less refined Bad Seeds projects to be released over the next couple of years. Why Cave feels the need to flood the market at this point in his career isn’t exactly clear — especially considering that the average time span between Bad Seeds records is only about a year and a half — though if Nocturama is any indication, it’s more the mark of restlessness than any aesthetic concern.
Before I get tacked up to a cross in some fanatic’s attempt to inspire future Cave classics, let’s put all the nails on the table — Nocturama isn’t an awful record, just a problematic one, mostly due to the fact that the spontaneous studio atmosphere under which he’s trying to operate doesn’t allow for the careful crafting that bore his prior masterpieces. In that sense, it ends up being more of a band-oriented record than Cave has allowed for in several years. Considering the stellar talent among the Bad Seeds ranks, this isn’t all bad (as is immediately apparent from the loosely ethereal instrumental sections of the leadoff track “Wonderful Life”), but it ultimately sounds as if Cave is altogether abandoning refinement for spontaneity’s sake rather than simply loosening the reigns a bit.
And as for the songs themselves, Nocturama once again doesn’t offer any real surprises. There are several lovely examples of the romantic balladeer role that Cave has increasingly cultivated over his last few records (“Wonderful Life”, “Right Out Of Your Hand”, “Still In Love”), but those successes are somewhat compromised by a couple of awkward counterweights (“He Wants You” and “Rock Of Gibraltar”). Much has also been made of Cave’s supposed ‘return-to-roots’ through a pair of hard-rocking tracks, “Dead Man In My Bed” and “Babe, I’m On Fire”, but that doesn’t amount to much more than unsubstantiated hype — “Dead Man” certainly burns with enough intensity to resurrect the titular corpse on the strength of Mick Harvey and Blixa Bargeld’s guitar work, but “Babe, I’m On Fire” overstays its welcome by at least ten minutes in an attempt to achieve some sort of post-punk “Desolation Row”. The Birthday Party this ain’t, regardless of what a bunch of overzealous critics might like to think.
The biggest culprit in dragging Nocturama through the mud, however, is the first single “Bring It On”, arguably Cave’s biggest shot at mainstream radio airplay since “Straight To You”. There’s no denying that the tune is as contagious as lice in a kindergarten classroom (albeit in a real Counting Crows kinda way), but not even guest vocalist Chris Bailey (singer for Australian heroes The Saints) can salvage Cave’s chorus from the future Ford truck commercial doggerel that it is. Spontaneity and lack of refinement are may cover for most of the record’s letdowns, but “Bring It On” defies all excuses.
In the best-case scenario, Cave will reconcile his lack of attention to songcraft while still allowing the Bad Seeds all that room to breathe — because a greater balance between the two could even surpass the sheer brilliance he’s already demonstrated on so many occasions. And since a Nick Cave-fueled market flood will undoubtedly reach Biblical proportions, we shouldn’t have to wait too long to see how it all plays out.