Whether he was rolling around stage growling against a din of feedback with the Birthday Party in the dawn of no wave, or seated before a grand piano in a three-piece suit performing one of his timeless ballads like “The Ship Song” or “Into My Arms”, Nick Cave has proven himself over the course of his 30-year career to be one of the most prolific showmen in modern rock.
And while much of the music he’s created with his longtime post-Party combo the Bad Seeds has, in many senses, rocked — as any fan of earlier works like From Her to Eternity and Tender Prey can attest — the last 15 years for the most part saw Cave chasing after “the classic love song” through drama and melody, be it grandiose (1994’s Let Love In, 1996’s Murder Ballads) or stark and minimal (1997’s The Boatman’s Call, 2003’s Nocturama).
However, in the wake of fellow noisemonger-turned-troubadour Blixa Bargeld of Einstürzende Neubauten’s departure from the Bad Seeds fold as lead guitarist/architect, and with the arrival of fellow Aussie, Dirty Three violinist, and occasional Cave collaborator Warren Ellis as a full-time member of the band, Nick Cave’s sonic focus has taken a less self-serious, more freewheeling turn towards the rock end of his creative spectrum, emergent upon the 2004 release of the group’s celebrated double-album opus Abattoir Blues/Lyre of Orpheus.
But where Abattoir/Orpheus served as a bridge of sorts between the dichotomy of the old and new Bad Seeds sound, Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! is a bold, uninhibited coming-out party that signifies the 50-year-old Cave’s full intention of becoming the 21st century king of rock. The 11 tracks comprising the Bad Seeds’ 14th album roar with a swagger that old Cave fans might balk at, but will most indubitably find embrace from his newer contingency of admirers who prefer that Nick leave the weepy string sections and baby grand chord progressions to his film scores. Those scores he’s created with Ellis — for such contemporary Americana cinema as 2006’s The Proposition and last year’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford — do, in fact, harbor some influence on Lazarus as well, but on an attitudinal level that’s reflected in Cave’s newfound penchant for the American West. Meaning this new Nick, with his outlaw mustache and Doc Holiday-cum-Johnny Cash attire (not to mention an apparent replacement of rotgut whiskey over heroin as his poison of choice), brims with enough confidence to fill a 40 gallon hat. In essence, he is wearing his proverbial showman on his sleeve more than ever before.
“This album is very upbeat,” a cocksure Cave proclaimed in the December 2007 issue of MOJO. “I can confidently say these are 11 of the coolest, grooviest, most right-on songs you’ll ever hear… It’s an unmitigated masterpiece.”
And for the most part, it’s a boast you simply cannot argue with. In succession with Abattoir Blues and the 2007 debut of the celebrated Birthday Party-esque Bad Seeds side project Grinderman, Lazarus is an unapologetic continued divergence away from the piano toward the electric guitar as the primary songwriting tool. As a matter of fact, the piano is nowhere to be found on the record at all, having been replaced by organs and clavinets on the gear line-up. In comparison to the totality of Nick Cave’s back catalog, Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! is easily the most upbeat album he has ever recorded. Call it his party record of sorts.
Lyrically, there is an edge of humor and cynicism that was never this prominent before, especially on the explosive title track, which re-imagines the story of New Testament icon Lazarus, who, according to the Bible, was resurrected from death. Here, Cave nicknames him “Larry” and transplants his born-again ass to New York City circa 1977 as some kind of decadent street hustler. Elsewhere, he makes digs at God and fabled gutter laureate Charles Bukowski on “We Call Upon the Author”, and adds an actual “Sha-la-la” coda to “Today’s Lesson”, both of which are a far, far cry from the velvet poetry that draped an album like 2001’s No More Shall We Part.
But this is not to say that Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! is full-on, balls-to-the-wall guitar rock throughout its near 50-minute time span. Though it’s true that the guitars come front and center predominantly here (or, in Warren Ellis’s case, a Fender Mandocaster electric mandolin, or his trusty viola played like a six-string), there are mellow moments on the album as well. A couple of which, in fact, make up some of Lazarus’s strongest material, namely “Moonland”, a slow-burning groove augmented by a clavinet bridge straight out of a Fela Kuti Afrika 70 jam, and the soulful mid-tempo ballad “More News from Nowhere” that closes out the album.
These songs and their tight in-the-pocket unity are cause for salute to this latest and strongest incarnation of the Bad Seeds, rounded out by the likes of longtime Seeder Mick Harvey on acoustic guitar, percussionists Jim Scalvunos and Thomas Wylder, bassist Martyn Casey, keyboardist Conway Savage, and multi-instrumentalist James Johnston, who exceed the promise they have shown as a band on both Abattoir/Orpheus and Grinderman.
To call Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! Nick Cave’s best album yet is a matter of opinion certain to raise some protests. But for someone who has always wanted to dive into the man’s songbook headfirst but has never known where to start, it can be said that this latest work is the perfect place to begin your journey into a most enjoyable and provocative catalog and work backwards chronologically from there. Maybe when that’s said and done you’ll find The Good Son or Henry’s Dream to be his singular masterpiece. But if you’re one of Nick Cave’s most ardent supporters, someone who has witnessed the mad showman through the years in all of his varied guises, you would be a fool to consider this work of perfection anything less than his absolute finest.