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.