Sunday, March 02, 2008

Doubtless the music press is going to be full of reviews and features eulogizing Nick Cave’s magnificent return to form with the Bad Seeds (and he‘s even done half the work for them, implanting the idea Derren-Brown-style in their brains by calling the album “Dig, Lazarus, Dig!”) I’ve been doing my best to dissent, imaging that once a year the Impostume could dole out a kicking to an increasingly frail and withered Cave for being terminally spent, but really, it’s pretty good. “Grinderman” may have been a bit of a trial for the rest of us but it seems to have fired up the Bad Seed's musical imagination, the rhythm section’s up front laying down some mighty grooves as garage keyboards vamp and scrape, plus it contains one really superb track, "Night of the Lotus Eaters” a clattering graveyard percussion loop that sounds bizarrely as though it’s been lifted from the Gravediggaz mighty, hiphopolyptic “ The day the earth cried.”

The main focus will doubtless be (as it was in yesterday’s Guardian) on Cave’s lyrical genius, his dryly intelligent, literary lyrics. But is Cave a great lyricist? In some ways he’s the worst thing about his own records. I’m tempted to say he’s been treading two decades worth of water since “Mutiny”, which was in itself far and away the best of the stuff he wrote for The Birthday Party give or take a few memorable lines here and there (“oh god please let me....” “Fingers down the throat of love,” “ Hands up, who wants to die!" ) Can anyone remember a particularly great line from The Bad Seed’s stuff? Cave is also weirdly obsessed with disavowing his best work, "The Boatman’s Call" too, because it was too personal, a lot of weeping and pining over lost love.

What Cave lacks are the attributes of compression and precision, the tightness and rightness that gives a line its impact, it has to be honed, sharp-edged enough to slip between your ribs. In terms of a practical example it’s hard to imagine Cave capable of a line as compressed or nuanced as the best of Richard Thompson’s, or being equally prepared to give new inflection to standard tropes*, which is really where the power in a lyric lies, making the familiar resonant. The skill is in skirting dangerously close to cliché without succumbing to it. Cave wants to be Literary, which equals Wordy and Referential writing filled with Big Symbols and ostentatious Cultural Capital. Something like Thompson’s “Beating the retreat/ Back home to you” which captures a whole heartbreaking scenario in seven short words is inaccessible to Cave, whose wearying garrulity and prolixity would render it “ Well, baby I went out there, into that great cruel world, with its hard red dangers and seething dark corners, searching, baby, searching, for that missing piece, that elusive something , that in our lives, I said, in our sweet domestic BLISS, I cold not find and though I searched high and low, from the foulest of the tenements to the pearl and gilt struck palaces of kings, through the dirt of the desert and the jungle’s steaming foam, it could not be, I said it could NOT be found! and so I came slinking, whipped and beaten, defeated, my tail slung between by trembling shanks, like poor Job beaten under the Lord’s cruel blows, to paw at your dress and beg for a bare corner of the floor.”

Well….. that’s half a kicking then.

And on the subject of old heroes re-invigorated, Firewater have a new record coming out sometime soon-ish ( I illegally downloaded it! Todd loves that punk-rock shit, sticking it to the man and .. err.. what do you mean he’s suing me….)

Todd is another would-be-mordant chronicler of the chaos and disillusion that accompany us down all the days, a determinedly barflying** underclass anti-hero who tells it like it is and kicks away the security blanket of easy pre-packaged romanticism in favour of dark and difficult pre-packaged Romanticism etc. When he gets it right, within his register there’s few who can touch him and on the first two Firewater albums, (above and beyond their being utterly exhilarating bits of No-wave inflected ethno-punk of course) Todd really is despoiling himself in high-style with the Muse, having chloroformed her and bundled her into the boot of a hijacked taxi as she was on her way round to Tom Wait’s place. The over-familiar Millerworld of beautiful losers, gutter bohemians, junkies, whores and hucksters has hardly ever been done so well, or so funnily.

But it’s a delicate balancing act of course and the danger is stumbling over into that peculiarly American self-aggrandizing Outsiderdom that industrial and metal too often go for. I may be abject, confused, desperate and a horribly self-centred manipulative little shit, but that’s because I FEEL more than you and am HONEST about my confusion and therefore noble!***The inverted dignity of being more-fucked-up than thou ( see “ Dirt” by NIN, with it’s images of kingliness: thorn of crown’s /liars chair/ empire etc) Mostly Todd was self-aware enough to play with the limit at which rueful reflection slides over into self-righteousness but the latest, after the disappointing “Man on the burning tightrope” and a three year hiatus travelling the world’s trouble spots garnering yet more authenticity stars ( he’s also been in jail!) like the terminally danger loving, big-balled badass he is (“Fuck you man! Keep your PHD. I’ve smoked opium through the barrel of a rusty AK 47 in Afghanistan!”) initially grates for precisely this reason. It’s a bit too sixth form Beat in its “here is the mighty uncontainable wildness of my soul”, a bit too tokenistically (some may say insultingly) self-important in it’s attempt to comment on the lives of the wretched of the earth. The hard bitten guy propping up the bar in Painsville, telling you how you don’t know how to live and you ‘aint seen nothing.

Good job I kept that other foot limber for another old crush? Not quite. The trouble with “The Golden Hour” is that it’s so good, so ebullient, so swaggeringly on point and rich in rhythmic and melodic invention, cooking up Bhangra, Klezmer, Rai and Christ-knows-what into a richly spiced salsa of madly infectious grooves, soul swelling chants and killer choruses, that after the third or fourth listen all your objections melt away. So, Todd’s a bit of an egotistical old fucker, frankly I forgive him. He’s just far too charming. Cocky, smug, no-doubt an intolerable pain in the arse but also a brilliant seducer away of all my perfectly well-founded objections. Panache trumps pedantry. Which is precisely how he wants it to be, innit?


You can hear the whole thing online here.

*Pope’s formula for wit, “what oft was thought, but ne're so well expressed” might actually be rendered as “what oft was expressed, but ne're so well employed”

** Interestingly it occurs to me that he’s also name checked Bukowski in a lyric as have Cave and David Thomas. “My friends are bad Bukowski/and I’m a bad joke that’s repeated at parties/ don’t carve it in stone unless it’s an epitaph / these things are worth one laugh” his own riff rather superbly runs, while Thomas’ is “All the men that hang around they are prayin they are free/ all the women that hang around are lookin for a Bukowski/ but the rails have turned to rust, and I see you laughin at the sea. E pluribus unum, honey - the dust will set us free.” Cave's is, “ Bukowski was a jerk!”

*** There was a truly gullet-savaging chat show hosted by Ruby Wax several years ago in which arch Narcissists Bret Easton Ellis, Elizabeth Wurzel, and Carrie Fisher tried to outdo each other in Fuckedness, one’s inability to accept the hideousness of (privileged) American life being directly correlated to the elevated artistry of your soul, presumably. Wurzel: “I was hallucinating and fucking everything I came across, man or woman, and swallowing three, four bottles of pills a day while I was writing “Prozac Nation.” Ellis “ I was so high during American Psycho that I actually can’t remember writing ninety percent of the book.” Fisher “ I died twice during “Postcards From the Edge” and finished the book in a filthy lunatic asylum in Mexico, on a morphine drip, pecking out the words with my toes having temporarily lost the use of both arms…” No doubt a teenage James Frey was furiously taking notes.


Dominic said...

Can anyone remember a particularly great line from The Bad Seed’s stuff?

"...a fag in a whalebone corset draping his dick across my cheek". Well, memorable anyway...

Anonymous said...

ahh.."Papa won't leave you Henry"

actually I quite like that album, ahem...esp "Brother my cup is empty"


Biggie Samuels said...

I concur with the one about the whalebone corset. I also always thought that opening a song with "I don't believe in an interventionist God" was a pretty neat trick. Liked his take on "Stagger Lee", too.

Dominic said...

Incidentally, "Bukowski was a jerk!" is almost certainly a crib from Berryman's "Rilke was a jerk", in the third of his Dream Songs.

Anonymous said...

It certainly is, as the song then goes on to big up Berryman...i hope this response doesn't imply that I have read " Dream songs"