Nick Cave is no longer a cynical goth. In the past decade, he has been so staggeringly prolific that he must have at least some faith in the healing powers of the creative process. Over his dozen albums with the Bad Seeds, Cave spun tales of doomed love, tortured lives, and gruesome death, until a turning point came in 1994 with Let Love In. The inner sleeve included a photo of Cave's baby grand, adorned with the taped-up scrawl of lyrics-in-progress--proof that the album had been a particular struggle for him. Let Love In literally suggested that the terminal nihilist had been partially vanquished by a new Cave, one who saw some chance for redemption even within the world of murder and darkness he described.
What's refreshing about his new album, then, is that it flows from Cave, unforced. Instead of battling or inhabiting folk-tale demons in every scene, Cave lets his songs tug directly at the soul. There are fewer words--nothing like "O'Malley's Bar," the 14-minute tune from Murder Ballads that's just a short story set to a Seeds shuffle. Instead, there are dramatic contrasts: Cave plays traditional tunes such as the warm-hearted "Rock of Gibraltar" against garage-y outbursts like "Dead Man in My Bed." More songs than stories, Nocturama took only a few weeks to record and as a result it's more of a Bad Seeds rock album than anything Cave has released in years. The band plays lurching, Birthday Party postpunk on "Babe, I'm on Fire," and elsewhere, they stir elegant currents behind romance-tinged dirges such as "Still in Love." Throughout Nocturama, violinist Warren Ellis (of Dirty Three) lends haunting accompaniment.
Cave has sometimes worn his influences--Leonard Cohen, Scott Walker, Kurt Weill--like buttons on his blood-red shirts. But there are less obvious touchstones on Nocturama. Even in varied moods, Cave sounds utterly himself. In the unusual "Bring it On," he switches between arty scene-painting verses and a rollicking, almost radio-friendly chorus. "Right out of Your Hand" has a country-soul feel amid its smoky-lounge ambience. The song is beautiful because the singer achieves an uncharacteristically delicate vocal: "You've got me eating right out of your hand." Cave has never sounded so vulnerable. The feeling is surprisingly natural.
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