Dig It

(For the season, and my Winter Fundraiser, I’m reposting some old favorites.)

Thanks to the joys of digital downloading, I’ve been enjoying the new Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds recording, “Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!” Wait, did I write enjoying? I mean, loving.

The band kicks off with the imperative “Lazarus, dig yourself.” Couldn’t be anyone but Nick Cave. I don’t know any other self-identified Christian punk-rockers who are truly Christian and truly punk-rockers. And this matters to his music: Cave clearly accepts and understands The Fall, it colors his every aesthetic idea.


American Narcissist Christians could never produce a song like “People Ain’t No Good” (a particular favorite of mine). For Cave, the musical extension of this faith is a deep foundation in American blues, both black and white and especially rural and primitive. It’s sounds like Blind Willie Johnson, Dock Boggs and prison songs, stuff that seems to come from a country that only exists in the imagination, but is indeed a part of America, a fundamental part. Along with the ideals of freedom, and the desire for hope, this country was also founded on desperation, violence and, of course, chattel slavery. There is a different cultural history to explore and even enjoy than that of political orations and good intentions. It is the history of drink and murder and human beings as doomed pawns.

So, as you can tell, dig Nick Cave. I dig him musically. Yeah, he can barely sing, but he’s also intensely musical, concerned with line and phrase, not just spitting out words. And perhaps I’m a sucker for the throbbing, propulsive ballad, but at least I’ll admit it. I love Art Pepper too, and the two artists are not that dissimilar.

It’s interesting to see where he is now and where he’s going after 2004’s magnificent “Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus,” one of the very finest recordings of any kind released that year. The new record is less narratively and musically ambitious, but no less satisfying. It has more of Cave’s humor, which is not a little self-mocking; at his most lyrically overwrought he seems to be mainly making fun of his own sensibilities. What is he saying on the new record? Well, he calls Lazarus “Larry:”

I can hear chants and incantations
And some guy is mentioning me in his prayers
. . .
Larry grew increasingly neurotic and obscene
I mean, he never asked to be raised up from the tomb
I mean, no one ever actually asked him to forsake his dreams

The title track reworks the story of Lazarus as something like The Rake’s Progress. Check it out:

The record is warm, bitter, romantic, lascivious, violent, tender, all things I love about Cave because these are things of life, and he’s giving you a sense of the whole of life. He’s a narrative songwriter much like Elvis Costello, but with his musical roots he narrates experiences from the third-person, seeking a more general relationship with myths and legends of human experience that simmer in our own minds and hearts.

When I came up out of the meat locker, she was gone . . . in Moonland, under the stars, under the snow. And I followed this car, and I followed that car, through the sand, and the snow. And it must be nice, it must be nice to know, that somebody needs you

In “We Call Upon The Author,” he gets at something both internal and external:

We call upon the author to explain!

He’s his own audience in this song, which mocks both bullshit writers and their idiot followers: “Prolix! Prolix! There’s nothing a pair of scissors can’t fix! I feel like a vacuum cleaner, a complete sucker!” That’s for expecting the answers to all man’s problems to be in a novel, or a song: “He brings me a book on Holocaust poetry, complete with pictures, and then tells me to get ready for the rain. Berryman was best, he wrote like wet paper maché, but went the Hemingway . . .

Like Costello’s more recent records, this one has a hard, muscular, stripped down sound. It’s absolutely rock and roll with the proper, threatening touch. It’s exciting and unsettling and comforting at the same time. This is the sound of the mob, the group that the lizard brain in all of us wants to belong to, for protection and comfort and the thrill of violence. The great sound of rock is like this, it gives us this musk of danger but leaves us safe in our middle-class existence, like being darkly thrilled by the long, amazing riot scene in The Werkmeister Harmonies, then leaving the theater both alarmed and secretly pleased with ourselves. There are worse things we can indulge in, for, since he starts with The Fall, Cave is also an intensely moral artist. And moral art requires seeing what a thing is, not pretending it doesn’t exist. He goes beyond the banality of sex and drugs into violence, rapture of dark and light, loss and the regaining of humanity. Dig it.

[Also, if you’re looking for bargains, this one is amazing]

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