Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
Dig, Lazarus Dig!!!
I was ready to pen a return-to-form monstrosity about this record that would likely tell you nothing, so I held back and let this record instead work its way into my day to day, listen to snippets in the car, at the store, on the way to the club. I wouldn't do this for every slab of plastic that comes through the mail slot; it's just that I care about what Nick Cave does. In a predicament that I suspect plagues Bob Dylan fans from way back, Nick Cave's early records filled a noticeable gap in the continuum, but over the years we diehards have had to endure his phases and costume changes, each time telling ourselves, "He's still got the stuff," while wishing he'd just somehow manage to do another Highway 61 Revisted/Tender Prey.
But they never do, do they? I sometimes envy the dimwitted knights of Creationism because evolution is usually disappointing in a human frame. You cannot expect an artist to retain the momentum after 30 years; it's even unreasonable to expect that thread that stretches back to the good old days to avoid dry rot. And yet, here we are, unable to let go of the past. I get a notice everyday - The Feelies are reuniting! The B-52's are hittin' the mall! It's a matter of time before some mouth-watering marketer informs me in breathless punctuation that Kajagoogoo is answering our prayers and reforming. Is it because music now is so uninspired and shallow that we are stoked when anyone with a modicum of perspective enters our airspace? Nah, rock music has always been uninspired and shallow; it's one of its greatest charms.
Nick Cave avoids answering this question of why we should care in the smartest way, by sidestepping it. Bob Dylan recharged his career in recent years not by diggingin his own crates, but by channeling his inspirations, and Nick Cave is doing the same, provided that my hypothesis that he was a big Patti Smith fan is correct. Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! sounds all the world like the greatest moments of Ms. Smith back when she offered hipster prattle, moans about the kids, pleads for the rub-out over swingin' rock-n-goddamn-roll on Horses and Radio Ethiopia. Dig!! is cleaner in tone, and Cave is funnier than Smith ever was, but it's there.
Take the title track: it's a tale of Larry, a mad ragged city rat like Cave himself once was, sampling the drugs and women and filth of the urban maze, all the while keeping his eye on the ever-expanding orb of weirdness that grows like a slow-mo mushroom cloud slowly evaporating the idiots that can't smell the uranium. Larry became famous, and he succumbed to the cloud, washing out:
On the streets of New York City
In a soup queue, a dope fiend, a slave, in the madhouse, then the grave
What do we know of the dead and who actually cares?
Is Cave offering this fiction as an alternate history of where he might have gone, instead of "waking up with a frappucino in his hand" as he did on Abbatoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus? Maybe. Like Patti Smith, Cave revels in teenage recklessness, seeing it as Blake's road of excess leading to palace of wisdom, best exemplified on "Today's Lesson" where young Janey gives herself to the ravaging winds of the streets where "The Sandman opens her up like a love letter and enters her dreams" Janey is the junkie hooker mystic, a seed of ancient wisdom flowering in a bed of degradation. Cave's narrative is unabashedly lurid, winding the threads of her sad story, the shit we derive from it and his red devil's tail up in a tight braid.
The album slides into a more contemplative direction, as if the narrator is nursing some nascent remorse for his deeds, surveying the damage. "Night of the Lotus Eaters" is a crawl through the narcotic hazy aftermath, Warren Ellis's violin looped into an amplified clockwork. "Albert Goes West" is a great American rock epic, sending off Albert, Bobby and Henry, busted characters from many of Cave's tales, into the uncertain futures on all compass points, while he remains the god-author of all these destinies "Me, I ain't going anywhere/Just sit and watch the sun come up/I like it here."
"We Call Upon the Author" follows this line of thinking, with complaint and gibberish about dead souls and wasteoids doled out in rough detail, always culminating with "and we call upon the author to explain." What he offers here is his state as Grand Narrator, pushing rotten zombies around the sidewalks in fruitless attempts to find meaning in it all. It's beautiful. In rock 'n' roll, it's all about your first record, in painting it's your mid period where you hit your stride, but in literature, it's your final work that holds all the secrets, and while I suspect Cave has time for a few more frappucinos, you get the sense that this is the vein he's mining on Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! He's gone from assumed participant in his ragged narrative to author of it, with clarity to see the damage done and the glory found, picking the meat off the bones of that skinny Australian boy that offered up so much lecherous splendor thirty years ago, instead of denizen of the Junkyard, he now sits smoking cigars in the office and throwing meat to the watch dogs, waiting to see how it all plays out when the sun goes down.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com