April 19, 2001

Sadly Upbeat

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Perhaps no man has been more successful at making a career out of gloominess than Nick Cave. He started out with seminal goth-pop outfit The Birthday Party in the early ’80s before setting out on a solo career.

In recent years, Cave has seemingly undergone a variety of internal struggles and changes, and the conflict has been wrought with stunning effect upon his music during this time. Cave, backed by the ever-present Bad Seeds, followed up 1996’s darkly humorous Murder Ballads, a collection of narratives about grisly deaths, with 1997’s The Boatman’s Call, his last proper studio album. Where Murder Ballads was morbid and satirical, Boatman found Cave expressing hope, romantic love, and a newfound religious conviction. It was a drastic change in the space of a single year, and it alienated and confused many listeners; critics either lavished Boatman with extravagant praise, or else utterly trashed it.

After an uncharacteristic 4-year break, Cave is back with yet another drastic turnaround. No More Shall We Part draws upon the more optimistic themes of Cave’s last album, while retaining his by-now familiar sonics. The album opens with the operatic grandeur of “As I Sat Sadly By Her Side,” which uses conflicting imagery to convey the narrator’s confused jumble of emotions about his longtime lover. This song sets the stage for the rest of the album as it walks the line between Murder Ballads‘ grim pessimism and Boatman‘s upbeat musings.

“Hallelujah” is the best track here, an almost 8-minute epic building up to a stormy climax that disipates into a chorus of female voices. Cave’s lyrics are at their morbid peak: “The tears are welling in my eyes again/ I need 20 big buckets to catch them in/ And 20 pretty girls to carry them down/ And 20 deep holes to bury them in.” Also notable is “Oh My Lord,” which features a bridge of lovely and dissonant strings before crashing out of existence with some squalling guitars.

Other songs stick closer to the ballad format, with varying success. “Sweetheart Come” is an undeniably touching and simple tune, with some old-country violin accenting the understated piano and brushed drums. On “We Came Along This Road,” Cave tells a sordid tale of a cheating wife and murdered lover with his expressive, plaintive moans.

Only “God Is in the House” fails to live up to the promise of the rest of the album. With its sappy Broadway-esque structure and preachy vocalizing, this song sticks out sorely from the rest of the album’s tasteful arrangements and clever, profound lyrics.

Cave may not be completely happy yet, but he’s at least found a way to see the positive side of his usual grim depictions. What it means for his music is that he’s produced his most varied and accomplished work yet.

Archived article by Ed Howard