A few weeks, maybe months ago, someone left a note after one of my blogs with some insider knowledge about the next Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds LP. It was, they suggested, the most direct pop album that Cave had ever made: after the Stoogesy ramalams of Grinderman and the meditative western soundtracks, here, apparently, was the workaholic Cave at his most focused and dynamic.
I’ve been living with “Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!” for a while now, and in a way that gossip was right. But this is one of those curious records that initially appear immediate, but which only become genuinely compelling after multiple listens. It’s bony, dispassionate, far from the confessional intensity of, say, “The Boatman’s Call”, and, in spite of the title, with less religious brow-furrowing than usual. Two things stand out. One, it’s really funny. Two, it’s really groovy.
If there’s a Cave album it reminds me of right now, it’s “Let Love In”, and chiefly the “Harlem Shuffle” vibes of “Red Right Hand”. That’s how it begins with the title track, and continues for most of the record – with a sinewy, dusty and happily malign take on funk. Martyn Casey’s bass often seems to be the dominant instrument (especially on “Today’s Lesson”), and a lot of the other Bad Seeds seem to squirt and explode in and out of a capacious mix.
There’s a lot of economy and ideas in the playing here – it’s only rarely that you get a sense of the massed thunder of The Bad Seeds all clattering away at once. On the quite wonderful “Moonland” (a tense and beautiful rethink of a bunch of clichés involving cars, stars, snow, pensive time alone, and a whispering DJ on the radio), the low-slung atmospherics are punctuated by this weird, tight little drum rolls. On “Hold On To Yourself”, Warren Ellis’ violin flits in and out in the background like a bee swarm.
Ellis seems to have taken over as Cave’s de facto musical director from Mick Harvey, though his fiddle is sparingly used. Instead, he meticulously organises guitars that creak like rusted hinges, and bluesy drum loops (on “Night Of The Lotus Eaters”) that could even have wandered off an early Beck record. The feel is still distinctly Cave-esque, though, since the open spaces allow the singer to squeeze in more words than ever.
There’s a rollicking, picaresque feel to plenty of these songs (the title track, “Albert Goes West”, the litany of girls he’s loved before in the traditionally lengthy, verbose, Dylanish closer, “More News From Nowhere”), accentuated by the blokey choruses provided by the Bad Seeds. Much like the Grinderman set, Cave still has that stentorian gravity of legend, but his enjoyment in all this is much more open now.
This comes to a head in “We Call Upon The Author”, a particularly gripping ramalam which finds Cave strenuously parodying himself as a beat poet and arbiter of staunch bohemian values in a world gone bad, or at the very least facile. “Our myxomatoid kids spraddle the streets,” he raves, hilariously, then yells, “Prolix! Prolix! Nothing a pair of scissors can’t fix!” He coins a couple of new verbs, to guru and to mediocre, exclaims “Bukowski was a jerk! Berryman was best!” (which’ll definitely please Craig Finn) and lets a dying author pronounce, “Everything is banal and jejune”. It’s a genuinely funny, seriously erudite visitation of Grumpy Old Men. And it rocks, of course.
Only once, I think, do we spot much personal detail. “Jesus Of The Moon” is one of those bruised and rueful ballads like “Rock Of Gibraltar”, in which latterday Cave grapples with the value – and the sometimes tricky realities – of a long-term emotional commitment. It’s here that he seems to come upon a manifesto for “Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!” itself: “People often talk about being scared of change, but I’m more afraid of things staying the same,” he sings. “Cause the game is never won, By standing in any one place for too long.”