Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Nocturama

After nine albums of shadowy storytelling and mournful balladry, Nick Cave finally seemed to be at peace with his muse as he reached album number 10, The Boatman’s Call, in 1997. It was a classic collection of plaintive and extremely personal confessionals that found Cave reaching the peak of his lyrical powers whilst his Bad Seeds exercised unprecedented musical dexterity and restraint. However, Cave put so much of himself into the record that his next steps seemed uncertain. It was an uncertainty that triggered a lengthy pause between studio albums, which was only punctuated by a scattering of live shows and an overdue (but lazily devised) “Best Of” compilation. He returned properly in 2001 with No More Shall We Part, an album that split both critics and fans like never before. Some proclaimed the record as his best; others described it as his weakest. On reflection, the latter camp came closer to the harsh truth. With overcooked orchestrations and clumsy self-parodying lyricism, Cave seemed to have fallen foul of his own exceedingly high standards.
With hindsight, even Cave admits that No More Shall We Part could have benefited from a little less precious pre-arrangement and a little more subtly and spontaneity. So with this successor piece, Cave has proffered to give more musical space to The Bad Seeds (surely one of the best backing bands on the planet?) and to reinvigorate the songwriting and the studio performances. Naturally, only the most zealous of Cave-fans expect him to revert to heroin addiction, to scrawling lyrics with bloodied syringes and to copious Old Testament cross-referencing – but there’s still the expectation, the hope and the longing that Cave can regain the ground which he’s lost in recent years, to his contemporaries, to his copyists and to his own back catalogue.
Nocturama starts well enough with the gloomy gliding “Wonderful Life,” in which Blixa Bargeld’s aching pedal steel underpins a typically downbeat Cave lyric. Cave’s self-doubting words suggest he’s still grappling with the concept of happiness as well as looking for last-ditch reinvention – “We got nothing much to lose / But this wonderful life / If you can find it.” On the subsequent “He Wants You,” Cave seems to have won over some of that doubt, but at the expense of slipping into the kind of sappy AOR schmaltz he’s always stood against. The song’s cringe-worthy chorus – “He wants you / He is straight and he is true / Ooh hoo hoo” – may not be his worst lyric (more on that later), but it’s shocking to hear such a great songwriter cutting clichéd corners in the name of simplicity.
Things pick up a little on the lovely “Right Out of Your Hand,” as Bad Seed buddies Conway Savage (backing vocals) and Warren Ellis (violin) wean Cave off the AOR-habit he’s strangely developed, in the process reacquainting him with the ruminative balladry he explored on his 1990 opus The Good Son. “Bring It On” follows in its wake, but sadly The Bad Seeds’ svelte slow-funk verse-bedding soon becomes the victim of a horribly contrived chorus incident, wherein Cave invites his new pal Chris Bailey (from Aussie punks The Saints) to bellow like a butch Jon Bon Jovi over stadium rock guitars. Thankfully, there’s some glorious catharsis to be unlocked on “Dead Man In My Bed,” as The Bad Seeds shred through Cave’s nightmarish account of domestic strife, with the same frenzied flair they flaunted on the seminal Henry’s Dream (1992) and Let Love In (1994) long-players.
The mayhem gives way to four more ballads. The first, “Still in Love,” harks back to the warmth and honesty of The Boatman’s Call, the second, “There is a Town” slips down a peg or few to recall the turgid No More Shall We Part, but the third, “Rock of Gibraltar,” is beyond belief. Built around the most risible rhyming patterns outside of an Oasis album, Cave does himself, and us all, a grand disservice. Vacuous verses like “You’d stand by me / And together we’d be / That great, steady Rock of Gibraltar” and “Under the big yellow moon / On our honeymoon / I took you on a trip to Malta,” certainly aren’t worthy of any awards outside of a kindergarten poetry contest. Mercifully though, the fourth slow-burner in the sequence, “She Passed by My Window,” slings out the rhyming dictionary for another permissible flashback to the delicate delights of The Good Son.
Cave leaves his get-out clause to the grand finale, “Babe, I’m on Fire.” With The Bad Seeds hammering every instrument and implement in the studio, Cave reverts to the Southern Gothic preacher persona of old; burning at the stake, cackling at the flames and delivering one last twisted sermon – “The drug-addled wreck / With a needle in his neck says it / The drunk says it, punk says it / The brave Buddhist monk says it / Babe, I’m on fire!” With 43 verses over a fierce (and disturbingly funny) 15 minutes, it’s perhaps a little too long and a little too late in the proceedings to completely convince us that Cave’s soul is still worth saving whole, but at least there’s still some bile bubbling away in his belly, even if it could be better regurgitated.
Nocturama isn’t the weakest album in Nick Cave’s canon, but it’s far from being a particularly good one either. It finds Cave limping along (albeit propped-up by his supportive but increasingly detached Bad Seeds) in search of his magical lost muse. Let’s hope he finds it, otherwise we’re looking at a less than wonderful end to an illustrious career. The long hard quest is his to endure.