It’s telling that my biggest gripe with Nick Cave is that he makes CDs that don’t fit on standard shelves. Dig Lazarus Dig!!! is Cave’s fourth straight album – along with 2004’s Abbatoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus, 2005’s B-sides collection, and last year’s Grinderman album – in which the dimensions of the package preclude it from fitting nicely where it belongs – which is to say, neatly alphabetized between Johnny Cash and Gnarls Barkley choirboy Cee-Lo’s 2004 solo album, Cee-Lo Green is the Soul Machine. In 1994, Pearl Jam’s bizarrely packaged Vitalogy presented the same problem, but after a short few weeks of national organizational mayhem, everyone realized that they could simply rotate the case ninety degrees and it would fit fine; you sacrificed being able to read the writing on the spine, but since it was the only record in most people’s collection that was packaged inside an honest-to-God book, it didn’t really amount to much in the long haul.
That in it mind, I’ve forcibly tried to cram Cave’s albums onto the shelf in every way imaginable, rotating them by degrees, bludgeoning them with household tools, etc. (my copy of Abbatoir Blues still has a giant black mark on the spine where I tried to aggressively coerce it into proper place with a rubber mallet), but in the end the shelves just weren’t having it. Another small victory for physics.
For someone who pays more attention to the organization of his CD collection than the balancing of his checkbook, this borders on catastrophic. Now Nick’s last four albums have no choice but to take up residency on the bottom shelf alongside the big clunky box sets, the Springsteen Tracks set, Dylan’s Biograph, etc. With the exception of the B-sides collection, it makes no organizational sense. Yet there they sit, along with George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, woefully out of place, appallingly divided from their more conventionally packaged brethren.
So what to do? Do I move all of Nick’s records to the lower shelf? Do I simply allow the tribe to remain split, and risk perhaps someday having company who fails to scan the entirety of my shelf and mistakes my fondness for Nick Cave as only extending up through 2003’s Nocturama? These are big questions, unlikely to be answered in the span of this short writing, so maybe it’s time to get to the point, which is this: despite all this impossibly maddening discord, Cave’s records have been unequivocally worth the trouble. I’m happy to report that his latest – the pounding Dig Lazarus Dig!!! – is no exception.
In the 1990’s, Nick Cave retreated from the gothic noise explosions on which he built his good name, instead anchoring his act on soft and subtle piano ballads that sought the answers to life’s big questions with musings on love, mortality, and the Bible. Even though a large segment of Cave’s audience saw the diversion as a complete wuss-out, it was hard to deny the immense growth in songwriting evidenced on those records -1997’s The Boatman’s Call, 2001’s No More Shall We Part, and the aforementioned Nocturama. Despite the Bad Seeds having received equal billing on the covers, these were largely Nick Cave solo records, with select members of his choice backing band providing minimalist flourishes only where necessary.
Perhaps not completely unpredictably, focusing on the core elements of the writing finally gave Cave the craftsman’s command that he’d nipped at on tracks like “The Ship Song” and “Nobody’s Baby Now.” Many of the songs on those records were on par with great songs by Waits and Cohen, elders of the macabre of whom Cave is a clear successor.
Then with 2004’s Abbatoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus, Cave managed to breed his Jekyll and Hyde and give birth to thus far the best record of his career, a searing opus both ferociously urgent and sympathetically tender. And while Dig Lazarus Dig!!! – Nick and the Seeds’ proper follow-up to Abbatoir – is a slightly more one-dimensional record, there’s no denying that Nick still unrepentantly means business. In most regards, Lazarus (which is henceforth how I’m going to refer to this record, thus evading the obnoxiousness of the punctuation marks at the end of the title), with its emphasis on Cave’s delightfully amateur guitar playing, seems to fit more comfortably alongside the record Cave released last year with his Grinderman side project (basically Nick with three Bad Seeds, minus the excess baggage) than it does with the Bad Seeds’ canon. Abridged description (though I realize we’re way past that at this point): it’s a rock and roll record, plain and simple.
But of course, it’s Cave’s charisma that elevates it above simply that. As hesitant as I am to use terms like “Dylanesque,” I was surprised at how often I found myself tracing the songcraft and performance on Lazarus back to records like Blood on the Tracks, and the 1965-66 Bobby-goes-electric trilogy. In so many instances everything from the rhyme placement to the turning of phrases had me feeling the same way I felt when I first heard Dylan say “I know what he really loves you for,” in “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat.” It’s the way the wit blends with the food for thought; a lyric like “Jesus only loves a man who bruises” (from “Hold On To Yourself”) sounds alarmingly at first like cheap intentional sacrilege, until you stop to imagine it might simply be a creative way of saying that Jesus loves everyone. We don’t know for sure, but it’s somehow better for being open to the interpretation.
Consider the album’s bookends, perhaps its two greatest strengths: the title track, and the surrealist narrative “More News From Nowhere.” The latter’s narrator speaks just like the guy in “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again” or “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream,” a stranger in a strange land who encounters a new freak show with each corner he rounds; in seven minutes we meet a one-eyed giant, a girl with two black eyes who has injected herself with panda blood, an irritating autograph seeker, and an impressive cast of others. We can almost visualize Cave inventing the song; we assume these circusfolk are simply illustrious versions of people Nick encounters on an average day in the city, much as we can imagine the sideshow ensemble in “Stuck Inside of Mobile” as people Dylan passed regularly on the streets of New York in 1966. Call it artistic peoplewatching. We’re drawn in because these people are familiar to us all; we walk by them every day. But we remain hooked because we’ve never really given them this much thought before. Some dude on the street is just some dude on the street until you give him a name like “Mr. Sandman” – then all of a sudden he’s a character in a wacky, abstract play.
The title track succeeds in much the same way. Here, Cave relocates a resurrected Lazarus to modern day New York City, where he cruises for love and nicknames his gals “Miss Boo” and “Miss Quick” to keep from confusing them. I can’t find significance in the Biblical reference beyond the fact that it gives the songwriter an excuse to nickname the iconic figure “Larry,” which is entertaining enough for me to lend it credence. Larry, like the narrator in “More News,” has been arbitrarily dropped in a world where he doesn’t belong, yet Cave manages to make sense of it for him (even though the character eventually goes bonkers at the end of the song). The lyric’s perfectly spaced rhymes, spat out in a sort of spoken word rap that is captured brilliantly in the song’s accompanying video (in which Cave marches assuredly into the screen with his menacing mustache and gangster suit against a backdrop of neon lights and background-singing Bad Seeds), along with the cranking organs and funky dancehall groove, make it Cave’s most party-friendly song yet (unless sitting in a room in the dark is your idea of a party, in which case you’ll find far better songs from earlier in Cave’s career).
Elsewhere, Cave and the Seeds run the musical gamut from acoustic rockers to artsy noise ramblings. “Night of the Lotus Eaters” sounds like a continuation of the title track from the Grinderman record: a simple plunking of rudimentary electric guitar over which the singer is allowed to dwell in his own head for a while, the way a jazz musician might inhabit an instrumental passage. The minimalist instrumentation loops over and over as Cave maneuvers around his thoughts, ultimately reaching the same conclusion time and again: “Get ready to shield yourself.” In “We Call Upon the Author,” Cave jumps from Bukowski to Hemingway to his friend Doug, cursing modern culture and demanding solutions to it from those who write about it.
It would meander if not for Cave’s commanding delivery; as it tends to work with great songwriters, even if you’re unable to follow his thoughts, you kind of can’t help but understand where he’s coming from, even if you can’t get behind the geometry of his marketing.