Dig, Lazarus & the Bad Seeds’ inner Grinderman

In a recent interview with Pitchfork, Nick Cave said that last year’s Grinderman record hit “like a bomb going off within the Bad Seeds,” shaking the band up and freeing them to take new approaches. On 2008’s “Dig, Lazarus, Dig!,” The Bad Seeds do, indeed, seem to have been liberated by the participation of several of their number in Cave’s stripped-down garage rock venture. This time out the band plays with a loose, freewheeling swagger; they sound adventurous, and at times almost youthful.

There’s no piano on Dig, Lazarus, Dig!; instead, the arrangements are generally centered around organ riffing and acoustic guitar. On top of this base, the band toys with any number of styles and textures: “Albert West” relies on a classic combo of distorted guitars and sha-la-la backing vocals to achieve a grungy pop-rock feel; “Jesus on the Moon” is haunting, slow, tense, and tuneful, and even employs a flute solo; and “More News From Nowhere” probably could have been mistaken for a straightforward pop tune if it weren’t for the rush of half-spoken syllables Cave squeezes into every line of the verses.

As usual, Cave offers lyrics containing equal parts of poetry and bombast, and declaims them with a sneering aggressiveness, just daring you to call him out for indulging in excess like that. And most of the time I’m happy to go along for the ride; I’m a sucker for any tune that has the nerve (as “Moonland” does) to open with lines as bold and evocatively grimy as “When I came up from out of the meat locker / The city was gone.” I’m also a big fan of Cave’s unabashed intellectualism, which is perhaps most obvious here in album highlight “We Call Upon the Author,” in which Cave offers a half-ironic challenge to all the writers out there to try to justify all their scribbling, when they’ve generally failed to explain much of anything about life or the world. “Bukowski was a jerk,” Cave sings, “Berryman was best / He wrote like wet papier-mâché, went the Hemming-way / Weirdly on wings and with maximum pain / We call upon the author to explain.” Which I guess means that for Cave’s speaker, Berryman’s “best” because he didn’t claim to have any answers and then had the decency to give up and kill himself. (Incidentally, Berryman seems to be enjoying a surge of popularity among indie rockers of late: The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn wrote a sharp-edged and insightful verse about him in “Stuck Between Stations,” and Okkervil River also namechecked him in an interview.)

But there are points on Dig, Lazarus, Dig! when Cave’s sarcasm can’t save him—sometimes I find that I just get tired of his way-overblown darkly-debauched-poet schtick a few tunes in. And that’s one fault that the Grinderman record definitely doesn’t have. Grinderman gave Cave a chance to try on a persona that cuts right through his pretension, and offered him means to channel his inner sexually frustrated teenager through the voice of a sleazy middle-aged poet. The setting of the tunes harnesses the naive ugliness of the hyper-masculine adolescent sexuality of garage rock in order to deflate Cave’s own persona. Nowhere is this more effective than in “No Pussy Blues,” in which Cave’s speaker repeatedly begs a much younger woman for sex, and comes off as both creepy and hilariously foolish. It’s impossible to take what Cave’s Grinderman persona says seriously, and so the Grinderman tunes have the power to absorb all of Cave’s bombast and drama. (Of course, with Grinderman, Cave has his cake and eats it too: much of the reason why the record is so successful is that Grinderman also captures the sexual energy of garage rock, and wallows reverently in its filthiness, even as Cave’s persona is being sent up.)

Word is that there will be another Grinderman record sometime in the not-too-distant future—I’m not sure if it’s a trick Cave and company can pull off again, but I’ll be looking forward to it, in any case. And in the meantime, the Bad Seeds sound like a band half their age. Sometimes this comes off as a bit of a reach, or even sleazy (not unlike Cave’s character in “No Pussy Blues”)—but on the whole it’s thrilling to hear an able and experienced band playing with renewed vigor.

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