‘Built from nothing but high hopes and thin air’: the line from the song ‘Dig Lazarus Dig’ sums ups the way that at least one fan seems to have felt about Nick Cave’s new album of the same name. Tim Russell argued on Facebook that Cave had made a flimsy album, the worst of his career, and that Cave should ‘dump the wife, give Blixa a call, move back to Berlin & buy a big bag of smack’ (Feb 28, 2008 at 4:59 PM). The album stinks, Russell has it, because the Bad Seeds have produced some unsingable melodies and have been ’emasculated’ (he accuses them of weedy instrumentation without the benefit of Blixa Bargeld). Russell also contends that Cave’s lyrics have gone all unfunny and banal (he quotes the line ‘We’re gonna have a real good time’ as an example). Russell’s piece is passionate enough but wrong on a number of counts.
Wrong, first of all, is the idea that this is somehow an upbeat album. It’s not sorrowful like No More Shall We Part or The Boatman’s Call but it is grimy, deliciously sordid, full of terrible jokes (my personal favourite is ‘I feel like a vacuum cleaner, a complete sucker’), crazed, desperate. ‘Shiny Happy People’ it ain’t. Russell claims it’s not fucked up enough. Not fucked up?
This is an album that has as its beating heart the ghost of John Berryman (1914-71), the US poet who committed suicide by jumping off a bridge and missing the water (1). Berryman’s subject-matter is all the kinds of things Cave revels in on Lazarus. This is from the first of Berryman’s Dream Songs:
What he has to now to say is a long
wonder the world can bear & be.
Once in a sycamore I was glad
all at the top, and I sang.
Hard on the land wears the strong sea
and empty grows every bed.
Berryman’s alter ego, Henry, is lascivious, drunk, violent…in other words, a bit like Lazarus in Cave’s song (‘Larry grew increasingly neurotic and obscene’). In the lyric booklet which Cave publishes with the album, Cave’s words have the same manic intensity as Berryman’s, and reveal a similar penchant for the ampersand. Berryman uses the ‘&’ to abbreviate, to suggest speed of thought, jokiness, nervous exhaustion (incomplete ideas, jumpy intensities). If anything Cave’s ampersands are even more manic. Take this sample from ‘Moonland’ where
under the stars
under the snow
I followed this car
& I followed that car
through the s&
Berryman ‘s poetry and his biography are attractive to Cave for a number of reasons. There is the suicide (2):
Berryman was best!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
he wrote like wet papier mache/went the Hemming-way/weirdly
on wings & with MAXIMUM PAIN!!!!!!!!!!!!
But what’s also attractive to Cave is Berryman’s descent into madness and alcoholic indignities, and the lens which this creates, a lens through which Berryman sees America: ‘Seedy Henry rose up shy in de world/& shaved & swung his barbells, duded Henry up,’ writes Berryman in Dream Song 77. Macho, hopelessly pathetic, with a ‘ruin-prone proud national mind,’ Berryman’s antihero journeys restlessly through dirty America, ‘making ready to move on.’
But there are more layers yet to Cave’s album. If Berryman is its beating heart, the roadmap of Dig, Lazarus, Dig is Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey. The last track on the record, ‘More News from Nowhere’, tells the story of Homer’s epic in miniature. In it appear Cave’s versions of Circe, the Cyclops and the Sirens. In fact, it seems that Cave’s former lover PJ Harvey is the Siren he has in mind when he sings ‘I saw Miss Polly!!!singing with some girls/I cried,–strap me to the mast!!!!’. Other songs take on aspects of The Odyssey. The song ‘Night of the Lotus Eaters’ fishhooks an episode in book nine of Homer’s poem into a howl of junked up political frustration at our ‘catastrophic leaders.'(3) ‘Midnight Man’ retells the story of what happens to Odysseus’s wife when Odysseus is on his travels -Penelope’s suitors are forever ‘comin’ round’ to Odysseus and Penelope’s ‘place’, vying for the chance to be her ‘midnight man’.
If I’ve made Lazarus sound like a poem rather than a record, so much the better. Cave surely intends this to be a poem, a poem not set to music, but married to it. But to neglect the melodies here would be to do Lazarus a grave injustice. Heavenly murk characterises the sound of this badass Bad Seed musical journey through the land of the dead. Tim Russell asserts this isn’t singable record. Yet I find myself utterly possessed by snatches of melody–oh strap me to the mast Mr Cave, if you would. ‘Lotus Eaters,’ for example, has a very trippy sound, in keeping with the narcotic undertow of the lyrics; Warren Ellis on ‘mandocaster’ and ‘loops’ appears to be responsible for part of the effect here, but the vocal, too, is a siren-song on Cave’s part. Yes, we might miss Blixa on this or on any Bad Seeds production. But hell’s bells, Ellis is extraordinary. He and his merry chums conjure up a whole legion of exotic instruments, even the names of which sound like they’re capable of summoning up a few spectres: ‘mandocaster,’ ‘cuica’, ‘loops,’ ‘vibra slap.’ The viola on ‘We Call Upon the Author’ sounds like it’s been ectoplasmically rearranged; the flute on ‘Jesus of the Moon’ levitates, man.
I could go on. But I won’t, at least until I’ve seen the live show in May. Suffice it to say that this is a record with ‘eat me’ written on it. Be sure, however, to take repeated doses. Overdose if at all possible. If you do, I guarantee you’ll find much more Homeric (and other) dark matter in Lazarus‘s beguiling murk. Get out your Homer and your headphones and dig.
(1) go to this page for a biog/bibliography: http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/a_f/berryman/life.htm
(2) The reference to ‘went the Hemming-way’ refers to the fact that the novelist Ernest Hemingway killed himself at the point where he felt he could no longer write. See http://www.ernest.hemingway.com/marywelsh.htm for more details.
(3)For the poetry anoraks amongst us, go to this blog which supports Barack Obama, and look at the use the blogger makes of Lowell’s poem ‘For the Union Dead’ which takes the idea of the US state as an aquarium and compare with Cave’s lyric ‘they fishbowled me and toured me round the old aquariums’. Has Cave been reading Lowell too? –Lowell and Berryman were contemporaries and friends. http://progressiveerupts.blogspot.com/2008/03/for-union-dead-robert-lowell.html