|ALBUM REVIEW: No More Shall We Part  Agenbyte|
|Sunday, 13 August 2006|
"they claimed I'd lost the plot"
First things first: there are particular reasons why I'm a big Nick Cave fan, and near the top of that list of reasons is his distinctive, soul rattling baritone. A true baritone, a natural, easy low register that flows into your consciousness and doesn't shake off. No pansy-assed, affected, Andrew Eldritch-falsity here: Nick Cave's baritone was born in the same land as Scott Walker's and Leonard Cohen's.
So it's with some sadness that I report that Nick has decided to offer up a fair amount of his new album in a higher register. Quite literally, when I first threw the CD into the player and wandered into the next room, I thought there might have been a screw up, because from what I could hear, it definitely wasn't Nick Cave. Coming back for a closer listen, though, it was pretty clear that Nick had turned crooner, and not in a grizzled, under-the bar, Tom Waits way, but in a Bowie, "I'm going to massacre 'God only Knows'" way. Musically, it sounded about right, if a bit weak in dynamics: the piano playing that's been omnipresent in Nick ballads since "The Good Son" layered atop new Seed Warren Ellis' (the Dirty Three) stirring violin; but vocally, Nick sounded strained, much like Bowie on "Hours," and lyrically, he sounded tapped out. There's a story in "As I Sat Sadly By Her Side," but I can't seem to get past the two or three references to kittens to figure out what it is. I began to have the terrible feeling that I was about to be very, very disappointed in a release by a trusted artist in a way I hadn't felt since Kate Bush laid the egg that was "The Red Shoes."
The good news: that sinking feeling only lasted for the first two tracks. And by the end of the album, it dissipated. "Love Letter", a fan favourite to hate since it's appearance on Nick's spoken word BBC recording "The Secret Life of the Love Song", is a swirling, glorious lost standard in the vein of Sinatra's Nelson Riddle recordings. "Fifteen Feet of Pure White Snow" dips into past Bad Seeds themes (if a little more kindly) of death, murder, madness and paranoia. "Oh My Lord", far from being another rumination on theology, starts as a mere lament at being doubted, slyly addressing exactly the criticisms I just levvied at the the album's first two tracks: "they claimed I'd lost the plot/kept saying that I was not/the man I used to be/they claimed that I'd gone soft." The song takes a dip into showboating with it's gospel "How have I offended thee?" chorus, before swerving headlong into the surreal, where we get to envision Nick at the hairdressers, mooned by a guy wearing plastic antlers, and falling to his knees, screaming into a cell phone, accompanied again by Ellis' increasingly manic playing. It's the most adventerous and fun track on the album and the most rockin' thing Nick's done since "Murder Ballads."
If "The Boatman's Call" hinted at an increasing influence of Leonard Cohen on Nick's songwriting and arrangements, this album brings that influence front and centre. "God is in the House" would sit happily on "The Future," and Cave is in fine Cohen form with his clipped, sarcasm-dripping delivery, detailing the religious and political hypocrisy of the new Conservative era with surprising clarity (for Nick), without any obscure Americana folklore references or allusions to multitudes of archangels (there are kittens in this song too, but they work this time).
While this album's "Hallelujah" isn't a cover of the Cohen song, it's likely a nod to it. Opening with a haunting violin that will loop throughout the song, Nick details the existence of an aging, isolated artist, abandoned in his decaying home. The song marks the first appearance of Kate and Anna McGarrigle as back up singers (another Cohen staple), and like Jennifer Warnes on Cohen's 80's albums, the McGarrigle Sisters are bound to invite criticisms of cheesiness from Cave fans. I'm on the fence on their involvement; while I don't have any problems with their minor vocal embellishments on the album and throughout this song (which, let's face it, is about as cornball a lyric as anything Cave has ever written anyway), I think their final repeated chorus at the end of the track pushes it dangerously close to—if not over—the border of Goth Town, where Cave is usually too careful to tread (wait, what was that I said about Andrew Eldritch?).
The last quarter of the album consists of ballads, with heavy lyrical leanings on matrimony and all its consequences. "The Sorrowful Wife" features a beautiful piano melody, easily one of the prettiest pieces of music Nick has written, before exploding into a Bad Seeds miasma. "We Came Along This Road" is another impeccable piano composition. "Gates to the Garden" turns on a simple guitar arpeggio that could play for the full four minutes of the song without my tiring of it, though the song unfortunately covers some tired Cave lyrical cliches to its detriment. "Darker with the Day" closes the album with some heavy McGarrigle Sisters harmonizing, and an observational lyric that comes across as anticlimactic after the fire of some of the earlier tracks.
The Bad Seeds themselves sound a little wasted on this album. Aside from Warren Ellis, who really makes his mark as the Big Bad Seed for the first time, this could almost be any band behind Nick. There's very little of old Blixa to be heard, and Mick Harvey's arrangements sound a tad by-the-numbers, as though he were paying more attention to "Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea" this year (though this is the stronger album by far).
While not the disaster that had been initially feared by some, "No More Shall We Part" is a bit of a disappointment: a little overly mature, a bit too mannered, as though Cave is a bit too willing to go peacefully into middle age, similar to Elvis Costello's Burt Bacharach collaboration. This is a pivotal period in Cave's career, and there's no doubt that he's handling it with more care and class than many of his contemporaries. It will be interesting to see which way he goes after this.
Used with permission from agenbyte.com