With luxurious piano, brooding vocals, and an absolute certainty that death and/or heartbreak are lurking behind every door, Nick Cave fashions bummers of impeccable taste. It's easy to sniff at his affected air of sophisticated Halloween dread, but he consistently digs deeper than detractors will admit, which he documents again on Nocturama, the newest album with his Bad Seeds.
"There Is a Town," for instance, is more than the sum of its violin iciness. On closer listening, the song is a precise examination of a prodigal son unable to return to the home he thought he despised. "Wonderful Life," of course, does not celebrate a wonderful life, but its full-bodied atmosphere and hopelessness give the cynicism a truth. Cave's fictional losers have a gravity to them -- this guy never wants you to forget the "writer" part of his singer-songwriter duties -- but he fleshes them out, keeps them from being caricatures or ghouls.
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That's why Cave's straight-up rock songs straight-up suck. They have none of the subtlety or craft of his other fine-honed brooders. Clinging to the bogeyman silliness of his earlier years, Cave disappoints on "Dead Man in My Bed" (it's a satire, you see) and the album-closing exorcism, "Baby, I'm on Fire." Did Cave think he had to shake the tree lest he succumb to monotony? It's amazing after 20 years that he still doesn't have a full understanding of his considerable talents -- or his serious shortcomings. -- Tim Grierson