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Nick Cave and The Bad Seed: Bogus Pomp?

“Tall, always wearing a suit, saturnine in countenance, having enjoyed prolonged narcotics use and making no secret of this ("utopiate!”), and cultivating a nostalgie de la boue image of the boho ‘outsider’ “

I could be talking about William S. Burroughs here, of course, or even one of his most self-conscious disciples, Will Self ('Hampstead Garden Suburb Gothic’ in his case, perhaps?), but on this occasion it’s Nick Cave, who has been far from taking time off during lockdown, releasing his Ally Pally solo performance of last year, Idiot Prayer, and also a new studio album, called, with typical reticence, Carnage, by Cave and his regular multi-instrumentalist confrere Warren Ellis. This duo has been manifesting for some time, what with the them collaborating on several film soundtracks, and on the (brief, now discontinued?) side project Grinderman. (I could never work out if the latter was a gentle self-parody of Cave’s sometimes ambiguous sexual amorality, such as that alluded to on his version of Stagger Lee.)

Is this the way things will be from now on - Nick Cave and his Bad Seed?

I usually buy every non-sound track studio album that Cave releases, and count myself an avid fan, but it wasn’t always this way: I failed to 'get’ the first four Bad Seeds albums (having previously loved The Birthday Party to death). I found the 'Southern Gothic’/'Tupulo Elvis’ shtick annoying and mannered in the extreme, having earlier felt exactly the same about Tom Waits, at least until the latter’s dual triumphs of Swordfishtrombones and Rain Dogs. However, I experienced a Damascene conversion on hearing Cave’s 1988 Tender Prey, and particularly enjoyed (Murder Ballads excepting, with Bob Dylan’s Death Is Not the End very clearly a standout track) Cave’s subsequent 'run’, up to, and, especially, 1997’s 'all-killer, no-filler’ The Boatman’s Call (his greatest, and certainly most consistent, work?). After the latter, he took some sort of sabbatical, and, since the disappointingly weak No More Shall We Part (2001) and Noctorama (2003), his work has been infuriatingly uneven. (I’ve always thought that Mick Harvey’s departure in 2010 contributed to the ever-increasing diminution in quality of the Cave output.)

Of course, the death of Cave’s teenage son, Arthur, in 2015, occasioned an unimaginable caesura, and Cave hence seemed incapable, or unwilling, to write songs that have any pace beyond the funereal. It thus seems unlikely that we will hear the likes of The Mercy Seat or Let Love In again. While this might seem entirely appropriate given the circumstances, and latter day tracks like Lavender Fields, Waiting For You and Bright Horses remain luminescent, moving and beautiful, the album trio of Skeleton Tree, Ghosteen and now Carnage present a static caravan of gloom, 'lightened’ by an overall sense of an aching, painful yearning for some kind of transcendence.

Sadly (only for me, that is), some of my earlier doubts about the Cave project have re-emerged with Carnage. "It’s OK” is all I can really say, and I very much doubt if I will be listening it much in a few month’s time. The fourth track, White Elephant, seems, for me, to be a synecdoche for the whole album. Firstly, I am 'completely over’ Cave’s use of guns and gynocidal grande guignol in his lyrics, a trope which hugely put me off Murder Ballads, which I found ludicrously and humourlessly overblown, utterly tasteless and musically uninteresting, a (man)nerd shlock for hopeless hipsters. The power of this particular Bad Seeds iteration seemed to totally protect Cave from it’s sheer bad faith, with full credit to his great band. (Cave’s trope of his “his little pen knife…plugged her through and through”, on Henry Lee however, was a teeny weeny bit of a give away as to somewhat Trumpian underlying anxieties ?)

For one, I find the sound of a man in his mid-60s singing “I’ll shoot you in the fucking face if you think of coming round here… I will shoot you in the face if you so much as look at me”, faintly preposterous and definitely “not a good look”. Cave merely sounds a bit mad and/or irritable here, as opposed to 'bad’ or even “dangerous to have a morning coffee on Brighton Marina with”. There are far too many reminders of Murder Ballads here for me, with the latter’s asinine O'Malley’s Bar as the prime witness for the summing up of the prosecution. (I’m well aware that 'anger’ is one of stages of the Kubler-Ross grief framework, but really?) Many will find this Carnage version of Cave no doubt somehow 'authentic’, as they may do with such modish lyrics as “a protester kneel(ing) on the neck of a statue, the statue says I can’t breath…”. For me, though, they strain credibility and sound rather desperate for contemporary relevance.

Mostly, however, I became increasingly exasperated by the 'gospel choir’ of the coda to the fourth track, White Elephant (in the room?). Now, Cave can do choirs, as he proved with the likes of O Children on 2004’s The Lyre of Orpheus (again, a maddeningly inconsistent album), but White Elephant is purely an exercise in sheer bombast, and, it is, yes, bathetic (and fundamentally unnecessary, in terms of the interior overall affect/effect). 'Mannered’ just about sums it up, I’m afraid, and Frank Zappa’s phrase 'bogus pomp’ immediately presented itself to me, like an unwanted mind fart. I’ve always, even on Cave’s greatest recordings, thought that swearing and shooting women in the face are neither big nor cool gestures, evidence perhaps that I have an excessively intrusive superego? Or maybe that Nick Cave still has, and still has, a problem with aggressive gun fantasies involving the female gender?

Listening to Bob Dylan’s genuinely transcendent latest work (prompted by Paul Morley’s new book, which I intend to look at next), I realised that the notion of shooting people can be addressed in a genuinely ambiguous (not postmodern) and thoughtful way. Similarly, conflicts with women don’t have to be resolved by whipping out double barrelled penis substitutes, and seemingly luxuriating in feeble 'pen knife’ hostility.

I look forward to Nick Cave moving on and upwards. If not, then I’m afraid that “I’m out”.

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The banner picture is by the late Mal Dean (1941-1974), which featured on the cover of the 1972 Incus Records vinyl release, Live Performances at Verity's Place, by two free improvisation pioneers, the English guitarist Derek Bailey and Dutch percussionist Han Bennink.