Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Nocturama

Nocturama (2003)

B-

1. Wonderful Life 2. He Wants You 3. Right Out Of Your Hand 4. Bring It On 5. Dead Man In My Bed 6. Still In Love 7. There Is A Town 8. Rock Of Gibraltar 9. She Passed By My Window 10. Babe, I’m On Fire

 

After overgrown nose hair and a newfound conviction that squinting is the best method of improving one’s vision degradation (“I don’t need reading glasses, god dammit! Now, is that fuzzy red blob up there a stop sign or just some guy in an Elmo costume?”), the most obvious sign that a man has officially gotten old is the classic Failed Recapturing of Youth. For most guys out there who hit their mid-life crisis, this means buying a fast car and then having cute girls in the next lane giggle and point at you because they know you’re just overcompensating for your impotence. For all you rock stars, it usually means realizing you haven’t “rocked” in a while, then proceeding to make a feeble, out of touch attempt at “rocking” because you have completely forgotten how to “rock.” For Nick Cave, it means making an album with like three songs that fit this description and being content with old fartdom for the rest of it.

Most rock songwriters seem to do their worst work in their forties (although there are some exceptions); I assume that’s because that’s the age at which most people are content with being lazy and boring. Nick Cave was 46 in 2003, and at that time—when nobody knew the great heights he would scale to afterwards—it sure seemed like he was conforming to this pattern. And though Nick has still never made a really bad album—which is pretty incredible for someone who has been around for as long as he has—Nocturama comes pretty darn close to being his career turd. I didn’t have this album until a couple of weeks ago, and lemme tell ya, I hated it the first couple of times I heard it. The piano ballads sounded like wimpy adult contemporary boring ass bullshit, and the token up-tempo tunes sounded like very sad, sorry attempts at making rock music by some very sad, sorry old men. After a few more listens, I decided the ballads were for the most part more drab than offensive. And the rock songs, well… I still think they pretty much suck. But I’ll still stick it with a mediocre B- grade even if I’m not so sure there’s more than three songs on here I can unequivocally say I like all the way through.

What really gnaws at me about Nocturama more than anything is that Nick Cave has never sounded so goddamn ordinary as he does here. Nearly all of his usual fire, gravity and lyrical mastery are replaced by squishy, obvious chord changes and horribly clichéd lyrics about his wife. The first two songs thankfully break the mold in this regard… opening dirge “Wonderful Life” rekindles some of that No More Shall We Part piano brooding magic and maintains Nick’s typical elegant cynicism as he quietly sneers: “It’s a wonderful life… if you can find it.” The next track, “He Wants You,” could not be more different tonally than its predecessor, but is more or less equally effective with its simple-yet-sweet buoyant, romantic piano melody. It almost reminds me of something Bob Dylan might have written in the mid-70s – I can practically hear the Bobster stretching out those elongated vowels on the chorus in his Desire voice. Nick also shows he’s still got some lyrical bite at his disposal: “Under the bridge and into your dreams he soars/While you lie alone in that idea-free sleep of yours/That you’ve been sleeping now for years.” But what happens right after that? A sluggish, boring piano ballad in which Nick expresses his love in the most trite, unimaginative manner he can muster: “You’ve got me eating right out of your hand.”

I guess marriage caused even the mighty Nick Cave to succumb to the deepest depths of clichéd romantic lyric writing. But at least by 2003, he’d been writing slow piano ballads almost exclusively for long enough that he was able to make all of the ones he wrote, if not exciting, then at least professional. I actually like the sweet, straightforward “Rock Of Gibraltar” despite the fact that it contains easily the most hackneyed lyrics on the album (“Under the big yellow moon/On our honeymoon/I took you on a trip to Malta.” What is this, an anniversary e-card?). So even though they’re mostly boring as hell and Warren Ellis’ ubiquitous violin accompaniments are starting to sound obligatorily tacked on rather than organic parts of the songs, I’ll take the ballads over the sorry attempts to “rock out.”

Presumably the band decided to try their hand at kicking ass again in order to 1) appease fans who were growing weary of all the damn slow, quiet songs they’d been writing for the previous six years, and 2) to appease Blixa, who was growing weary of all the damn slow, quiet songs they’d been writing for the previous six years and was sick of receding into the background of the band’s sound. In other words, they were pandering, and it shows. The supposed “return to rock” single was “Bring It On,” which sounds like a second tier soft rock AOR hit from 1975. So if you love the Doobie Brothers, then dig in, but I’m happy to skip it and stick with stuff I actually like (what do I like? The Beastie Boys. That’s pretty much it. I don’t actually listen to any of this crap I’m reviewing, it’s all a lie). Nick couldn’t even be bothered to get his old growl going, and instead enlisted the Saints’ Chris Bailey to ham it up on the chorus. The more garagey “Dead Man In My Bed” is sufficiently energetic and crude, but it’s screechy, overlong and demonstrates little real inspiration. But it’s the picture of craft when compared to the 15-minute exercise in overindulgence that is “Babe, I’m On Fire,” which is more of an endurance test than an actual song. Sure, it’s got a cool bassline, and it rocks pretty well, and I’d probably like it if it were three minutes long (or, hell, even five). But after Mick and Blixa exercise and abuse every dissonant guitar noise in their arsenals in a futile effort to keep up with thirty-nine mad lib-quality verses (they’re all constructed the same way: “_____ says it, _____ says it/_____ says it and _____ says it.” A real tour de force for Nick Cave, the great “literary” songwriter, eh?), needless to say, it’s a bit much. It’s a clear sign that, for as hard as he tried to (i.e. really, really hard), not even Nick Cave could outrun mediocre middle age.



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