Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds: “Dig!!! Lazarus, Dig!!!”

After an album as heavy as the double-disc opus Abattoir Blues and the Lyre of Orpheus, it’s no wonder Nick Cave needed a vacation; and after a vacation as enjoyable as last year’s Grinderman side-group, it’s no wonder he wasn’t entirely ready to come back to his day job.

Cave’s latest album with the Bad Seeds– enthusiastically titled Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!— is unmistakeably the work of the seminal post-punk outfit, but it’s as much a continuation of Grinderman as it is Abattoir, both in sound as well as spirit. Cave and his three sidemen really cut loose last year, making an album of tightly-coiled, minimalist blues-rock that emphasized the bawdy and the visceral over the more cerebral flourishes the Bad Seeds often employ, focusing on dirty riffs and primal beats more than anything else. And Lazarus, though more epic and expansive, follows the spirit of that album on most of its eleven tracks; this is an album of gleeful grooves and rumbling rhythms, an album that struts and sways and moves the feet more than anything else Cave has done in ages– maybe ever. The title cut that opens the album is a good indicator of this thing’s sound– it’s a creepy, kitschy cemetery jig that invites the listener to sing along with the chanted refrain, and it moves seamlessly into the similarly beat-centered “Today’s Lesson” and “Moonland,” ebbing and flowing into more riff-oriented fare like “Albert Goes West” or romantic ballads like “Jesus of the Moon,” but largely staying within the same amiable groove.

But Cave’s off-time wasn’t only consumed with Grinderman; he and partner in crime Warren Ellis also penned a couple of film scores, which are equally influential here. More than anything the Seeds have ever recorded before, Lazarus is an album of texture and dynamics, an album that focuses on songs but takes great pleasure in sounds. Cave and producer Nick Launay pack the album with a sonic richness and diversity that makes these grooves seem to grow deeper and more intoxicating with every listen; witness the haunted, druggy hush of “Night of the Lotus Eaters,” or the way in which abrasive shards of noise cloak one of the band’s simplest, catchiest hooks yet in “Albert Goes West.”

But more than anything, Cave is still a words guy, and in that regard Lazarus is a Bad Seeds album through and through. The album is an avalanche of words, one that finds Cave’s poetic imagination reaching farther and bringing in more ideas than ever before, incorporating impressionistic poetry with his usual mix of bawdy jokes and innuendo, darkly funny gothic storytelling, and a love of mythology and religious language. And it yields a few of his best songs ever: the album’s epic closer, the winding “More News from Nowhere,” channels Homer through mid-60s Dylan, using the Odyssey as a parable of spiritual lethargy and infidelity. And the album’s centerpiece, “We Call Upon the Author,” has Cave waxing metaphysical, calling upon the author of the story– it could be about a novel, about God’s creation, or about one of his own songs– to explain why there’s so much bloodshed and decay. It’s a howling lament of psalm-like intensity, and the climax is spooky, soul-stirring stuff: “Prolix! Prolix! Nothing a pair of scissors can’t fix!”

Cave rants and raves like– to borrow a phrase from Tom Waits– “a preacher waving a gun around,” but as the album unwinds, it becomes more and more clear that this madman has something to say. The album begins in New York and quickly moves to San Fransisco, and, by the time Albert goes out west to Arizona, it’s obvious that this is Cave’s album about America in 2008– and the picture is pretty bleak. Almost all of the characters here are either dead, asleep, or drugged; even when Cave emphasizes the sound and the mood of the words more than their actual meaning, as on “Moonland,” the album feels like a scary sermon indicting complacency, spiritual lethargy, denial, willful depravity. Morally, these characters are all asleep at the wheel, and what’s more, that seems to be the way they like it.

But even if it ends on a harrowing note, with the chilling resignation of “More News from Nowhere,” there’s at least one moment on the album when Cave’s narrator seems to wake up, on the fist-shaking anger and riveting inquiry of “We Call Upon the Author.” It’s here that we realize that Cave isn’t on vacation after all; he still occupies his position as one of music’s most challenging and restless prophets, a minstrel of morality who isn’t content to let us slumber for very long.

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