Until fairly recently, Nick Cave was the most distinctive, unique, and poignant lyricist in rock. Like his astounding novel, And the Ass Saw the Angel, Cave’s best songs are sprawling visions, anachronistic but bibilical in diction, and dark as pitch in tenor. Listen to The Good Son or Tender Prey or the better tracks of The Boatman’s Call: It’s as though Nietzsche started a rock band. But these days, a new Cave project emerges (rises, if you will) every two or three years and sparks a lot of interest and declarations that “He’s still got it!,” only to get phased out of rotation when you realize you’d rather just listen to Henry’s Dream again. The difference between 20th-century Cave and 21st-century Cave is that his narrators used to bellow at the firmament and now they howl at the moon. The prophet Elijah and King Lear did the former; Wolfman Jack did the latter.
There are quite a few moons on Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!, the 14th Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds studio album. There’s “Moonland,” which is the closest to a reggae song you’d ever expect to hear from these Aussie madmen. Rum-a-tum-tum congas and a slinky bassline drive Cave’s paranoid but strangely pragmatic depiction of the morning after a nuclear holocaust (probably); his narrator remarks that the emptied Earth is remarkably beautiful “under the stars, under the ash” but that it’s still a pretty lonely place to be. Then there’s “Jesus of the Moon,” the closest thing here to a love ballad (the genre he absolutely mastered with “Into My Arms” from The Boatman’s Call). Like its title, the song is a just a little too obvious, plowing through lyrical territory well-marked by Leonard Cohen (Cave’s speaker remembers his beloved well in the St. James, rather than Chelsea Hotel) and Sam Cooke: “’Cause people often talk about being scared of change/But for me I’m more afraid of things staying the same.” What? Is he campaigning for Obama or something?
All detachment and skepticism aside (remembering, of course, that Cave is a skeptic’s skeptic, though he seems to have resolved his decades of spiritual anxiety on “Into My Arms” since he hasn’t written about crises of faith or matters of the heart as astutely since), this album fucking rules! Along with last year’s blistering Grinderman project, Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!! is ultimately a rock record more than it is an ideas record, but on both counts the Seeds bring it like a band half their age. Specifically, they bring it like the Hold Steady—if the Hold Steady listened to the Stooges instead of Springsteen. Though Cave has always been more than a little verbose as a lyricist, there is still a distinctly Craig Finn-esque delivery here. On “We Call Upon the Author (To Explain),” in addition to using words like “myxomatoid,” “prolix,” and “jejune,” Cave gives a shout-out to Finn’s favorite laureate, John Berryman: “Bukowski was a jerk! Berryman was best!/He wrote like wet paper-maché, went the Heming-way weirdly on wings and with maximum pain!”
That this shout-out is shouted at the moon is, of course, no surprise, nor is it that the “author” who must explain himself is the Judeo-Christian capital-G God, who’s here called to task not just for Bukowski’s overrated poetry and Berryman’s suicide but for “rampant discrimination, mass poverty, third-world debt, infectious disease/Global inequality, and deepening socio-economic divisions.” That’s a mouthful. So much so that you have to wonder if Cave’s just acting out a bit, drumming up some alliterative, tongue-twisted, wild-man yelping to keep up with his band’s unstoppable garage-rock. Cause, damn, in nearly 25 years, the Bad Seeds have never rocked this hard (excepting, perhaps, the explosive Let Love In album). Picture ? and the Mysterians crossed with Black Flag.
Which is a curious way for the band to move into their silver anniversary. As a young man, Cave could channel Shakespeare’s aged Lear without sounding ridiculous. Now, firmly within middle age, his energy and capacity for raucousness is unmatched. Among the album’s best songs are the bone-rattling title track and coarse (in a good way) “Lie Down Here (And Be My Girl),” but its greatest moment is its coda, “More News From Nowhere.” “News” is tempting to read as autobiography, as the catalog of women’s names includes a “Miss Polly” (Cave’s former lover PJ Harvey?), an Alina (Cave’s former lover Anita Lane?), and a Deanna (whoever the song “Deanna” was based on?). It’s also the one moment on the record where this impenetrably cool customer lets his guard down, wondering: “Don’t it make you feel so sad, don’t the blood rush to your feet/To think that everything you do today, tomorrow is obsolete?” Maybe so, but Cave should rest easy, as what he does today is still the best of the lot.
Label: Anti Release Date: April 14, 2008 Buy: Amazon
Review: Guster’s Look Alive Is the Sound of a Band Rejuvenated
Guster’s eighth album buzzes with inventiveness, charm, and youthful dynamism.3.5
Guster has long been associated with “college rock,” and not without reason. Even though every member of the Boston-based band is now over 40, they still make bright, hyper-polished alt-pop tailor-made for campus radio. The band’s eighth album, Look Alive, adds synths and contemporary production flourishes to their sonic repertoire, but all the hallmarks of their sound remain: winsome melodies, soaring hooks, and tight, immaculate songcraft that combines the best of Britpop, 1960s folk, and post-grunge.
Like most Guster albums, Look Alive has a few duds, a few modest successes, and at least one showstopper—a song that makes you wonder why the band was never more successful. On 2006’s Ganging Up on the Sun, that song was “Satellite,” a shimmering power-pop masterpiece that split the difference between the Shins and Neutral Milk Hotel. Here, it’s “Hard Times,” which also happens to be the least Guster-like track on the album. Drenched in Auto-Tune, buzzing synth frequencies, and stadium-ready percussion, the song doesn’t sound anything like “Satellite,” let alone like the band’s output before 2000. Yet, true to form, it’s a remarkable piece of pop. “Sinister systems keep us satisfied/These are hard times,” Ryan Miller wails. It’s a simple statement, but it makes for a stunning chorus, and Miller’s effusive delivery renders it the most cathartic moment on the album.
On “Not for Nothing,” the band ventures into dream-rock territory, surrounding themselves with icy synth textures that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Wild Nothing track, while “Hello Mister Sun” is unabashed bubblegum pop that pays homage to whimsical Paul McCartney tracks like “Penny Lane” and “Good Day Sunshine.” Likewise, the sprightly “Overexcited” bounces along with a spoken-word verse and pounding, piano-centric chorus. While none of these tracks tackle complex themes, they’re playful, infectious, and eminently listenable.
Many of Guster’s best-known songs delve into same subject matter: newfound love, crippling heartache, the pain of being young, restless, and alone. Yet much of Look Alive is more elliptical. “Maybe we’re all criminals and this is just the scene of a crime,” Miller sings ambiguously on “Terrified,” forcing the listener to fill in the blanks. “Summertime” similarly defies easy explanation: Brimming with obscure religious imagery, whispered background vocals, and references to an unspecified war, it follows no logical narrative, instead allowing the track’s mood—a feeling of triumph over some great adversity—to tell the story.
For better and worse, Look Alive’s production mimics the spacious, ‘80s-inspired aesthetic that pervades much of contemporary indie-rock. “Don’t Go” transplants a prototypical Guster melody into a synth-soaked songscape, while the title track seems expressly engineered for Spotify’s Left of Center playlist. Still, the album never feels like the work of aging musicians struggling to stay relevant; it buzzes with inventiveness, charm, and youthful dynamism.
Label: Nettwerk Release Date: January 18, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: Toro y Moi’s Outer Peace Bends Boundaries with Mixed Results
Chaz Bear’s sixth album as Toro y Moi bends the boundaries of club music, albeit with mixed results.3.0
Having already concocted brainy dance music under the alter ego Les Sins, chillwave trailblazer, synth-pop alchemist, and psychedelic rock enthusiast Chaz Bear fully embraces the dance floor on Outer Peace, his sixth studio album as Toro y Moi. Pulling from sources as disparate as R&B, tropical house, and trap, the California-based singer bends the boundaries of club music, albeit with mixed results.
Upon first listen, it seems like Outer Peace colors a rough sketch of a dystopian future where the material is mistaken for the immaterial, technology becomes a gateway to the metaphysical, and fleeting pleasures, prompting ever greater hedonistic pursuits. It doesn’t take long to realize, though, that this dystopia isn’t some future prospect, but the present moment. With lines like “Mystic staring at his phone for oneness,” Bear masterfully defamiliarizes our world, exposing the absurdity of the digital age.
Bear charmingly pairs this oft-heavy subject matter with club-ready grooves. The existential crisis of “Who Am I” is juxtaposed with sweetly pitched-up vocals and a fizzy patchwork of synths. Bear’s playful approach to house music ensures that no amount of existential dread and doom can dampen the mood he creates throughout the album.
Bear’s tinkering, however, isn’t always transportive. The rather vanilla tropical house beat of “Baby Drive It Down” recalls Drake’s dancehall-lite, with a lifeless performance from Bear. His experimentation with trap is at first promising on “Monte Carlo,” with the support of a dreamy pillow of vocal samples, but coming in at two minutes, the track feels one note, lacking any tempo changes or even a bridge, suggesting it was perhaps better fit for an interlude.
The cover of Outer Peace depicts Bear gazing intently at a computer screen, surrounded by instruments in a clean, sterile room. He reportedly created the majority of the album during an unaccompanied two-week retreat off Northern California’s Russian River, and this isolation can be felt throughout. The album’s title represents the remarkable possibility of finding freedom from the outside world by letting loose on the dance floor and experiencing liberation in a crowd of strangers. Bear certainly takes the album there at several points, but in the limited scope and cerebral slant of these too-brief songs, he loses that outer peace.
Label: Carpark Release Date: January 18, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: Joe Jackson’s Fool Is a Concise and Punchy Nostalgia Trip
On Fool, Joe Jackson sounds younger and angrier than he has in years.3.0
Joe Jackson has spent the better part of four decades trying to put some distance between himself and his debut, Look Sharp!, a collection of acerbic new-wave pop songs that earned him the label of “angry young man.” But on his 21st album, Fool, he sounds younger and angrier than he has since 2003’s deliberately retro Volume 4. Maybe it’s a symptom of nostalgia: Fool, after all, is being released almost 40 years to the day after Look Sharp!, accompanied by a tour that promises to draw from Jackson’s entire career.
The album’s first two singles, “Fabulously Absolute” and “Friend Better,” both seem to deliberately rekindle the spirit of 1979: the former with its wiry post-punk guitar and synth riffs, the latter with its snotty vocal cut from the same cloth as early Jackson hits like “Is She Really Going Out with Him?” Even the refrain of the opening track “Big Black Cloud”—“No luck, no money, no sex, no fun”—is torn straight out of the London punk playbook.
Not all of the album calls back so specifically to Jackson’s debut: With its jazz-inflected piano and flute, closing track “Alchemy” is a welcome return to the moody sophisti-pop of 1982’s Night and Day. More often, however, Fool‘s refined pop-rock recalls an amalgamation of styles from Jackson’s “classic” era while also reflecting his late-career maturity. Tracks like the elegiac “Strange Land” marry his long-standing jazz and classical ambitions with his undeniable knack for pop melody in a way that doesn’t shortchange either.
Jackson, though, still hasn’t quite shaken his tendency to overextend himself. The title track is well-played, with some virtuosic runs by longtime bassist Graham Maby, but it also careens from Jackson rapping into a megaphone to a madrigal-like bridge to a synthesized surf guitar solo. The Beatles-esque “Dave” holds together better musically, but its character study of a pure-hearted but simple-minded everyman, who could have something to teach us about slowing down and enjoying life, feels cloying and condescending.
If Fool doesn’t quite measure up to Jackson’s sterling early work, it’s still more concise and punchy than 2015’s Fast Forward and less self-consciously arty than his late-‘80s and ‘90s work. By now, Jackson has surely come to terms with the fact that he’ll never be able to outrun his new wave days; keeping it as just one of the tools in his expansive arsenal is a fine compromise.
Label: earMUSIC Release Date: January 18, 2019 Buy: Amazon