Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
[The Mail On Sunday, 2004]
NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS
THE LYRE OF ORPHEUS
WERE NATASHA BEDINGFIELD any perkier, you'd be tempted to train a garden hose upon her. Although she might well be waterproof. She shares with her pop star brother Daniel the air, in both manner and appearance, of having been laminated. Perhaps formica runs in the family. It certainly runs in their music.
Like her brother, Natasha has confused ability with talent. She is artless, not as in unconniving, but in the sense that she has no sensitivity to her medium. On her debut album, Unwritten, she sounds as if she's warbling a direct transcript of a teen magazine's agony column, all pop psychology and banalities masquerading as insight: “We're all mad in our own way”. By jiminy, there's the human condition nailed to a fencepost.
You may have heard Bedingfield's recent, catchy hit, These Words - one of those wince-making songs-about-songs, in the tradition of Elton John's Your Song and FR David's Words. With its blatant debt to Nelly Furtado, it dovetails neatly with the record company's plan to market Bedingfield as a creator rather than a puppet. That strikes me as particularly cynical and misleading; Unwritten is unmistakably branded with the scarlet “C” of the committee. It's far from the worst album I've heard of late; but it is one of the most irritating.
Bedingfield's teenage target market deserves better than this sterile, pandering effort. The benchmark for what you might call Girlie Advice Pop was set by Kim Appleby's deft and breezy self-titled album back in 1990. It should be required listening for anyone embarking on such a project.
Nick Cave has been doing what Nick Cave does for so long that it's easy to take him for granted. His thirteen albums include nary a duffer; and while he has occasionally settled into rote, several of them touch on greatness.
The newest, a double set, suggests that Cave has spent even more time than usual listening to Leonard Cohen, and that the Phil Spector produced Death Of A Ladies Man has rarely been off his hi-fi.
Cave and Cohen both possess gloom-mongering reputations belied by a dark current of humour. That humour was in short supply on Cave's last three LPs, but it's back in force on Abattoir Blues/The Lyre Of Orpheus, his drollest work since 1996's gleefully macabre Murder Ballads.
Cave's band, The Bad Seeds, have for the first time been obliged to do without the corrosive guitar-playing of Blixa Bargeld. It may be a coincidence, but this is the closest thing to old-fangled rock they have yet concocted. It echoes the robust, rollicking feel of those records produced in the late Sixties and early Seventies by Jimmy Miller (The Rolling Stones, Delaney & Bonnie, Traffic), without being so clod-hoppingly obvious as to replicate it outright.
There are moments, too, that hark back to certain of Bob Dylan's less celebrated albums - Street Legal and Slow Train Coming, with their lowering atmospheres, Biblical overtones and gospel vocal interjections. No other Nick Cave LP has betrayed possible sources so freely; even so, Cave cannot help but sound exactly like himself.
Cave is on fine and confident songwriting form here, justifying the sprawl of material across two discs. He has rarely given more enjoyable expression to his singular knack of combining the sombre, the absurd and the salacious.
Nature Boy - not the Nat King Cole number, but a Cave original with a mild but irresistible likeness to the sublime Cockney Rebel track Make Me Smile (Come Up And See Me) - instantly claims its place among his best recordings.
Cave clearly knows that if you're going to steal the name of a classic song, you'd better compose a belter to go with it. Ms Bedingfield might have considered that before conferring the title Wild Horses upon a ballad so stultifying it would extinguish the flames of waving lighters.
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