I’m finally getting around to posting about my top 11 albums. While they’re not presented in any specific order, this one is a strong contender for album of the year.
Good music often tells a story. A top-notch songwriter knows how to tell a story not just through the words themselves, but also through the phrasing and delivery of those words, the arrangement of the music, and the interplay between vocals and instrumentation. Whether personal stories like Greg Dulli’s tense dramas on the Afghan Whigs’ “Gentleman,” or the fictional tales about characters and places by the likes of Springsteen or Cash, these vignettes manage to communicate more about the human condition in three minutes than most novels can manage in a hundred pages.
I have the utmost respect for musicians that can spin stories in their songs, but for every Springsteen, whose music I actively enjoy, there’s a Richard Thompson, an artist who – despite how much I respect his talents – just doesn’t do it for me. My good friend Jason tried to turn me on to Thompson, but he was unsuccessful. The songs were at times brilliant, but I just couldn’t get into the music or Thompson’s voice. I keep trying him from time to time, just to see if my tastes have changed, but so far the result has always been the same.
Years before that, another good friend had introduced me to another great songwriter in Nick Cave. My first real introduction to Cave was via his early post-punk band The Birthday Party. Described by Allmusic as one of the “most challenging post-punk groups to emerge in the early ‘80s,” The Birthday Party made music that to this day inspires bands the world over. Frankly, they do absolutely nothing for me, but my ambivalence is an improvement from the active dislike I harbored toward the music in years past. Still, even through the music that grated on my nerves, I thought Cave to be a genius songwriter.
I expected I would enjoy Cave’s post-Birthday Party albums with his band The Bad Seeds, but that music never grabbed me. It was frustrating. If asked what I thought about Cave, I would always have to qualify my answers. “He’s a brilliant lyricist, but I just can’t get into his music.” After a couple of years, I pretty much gave up on liking Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Then he went and released “Dig!!! Lazarus, Dig!!!” and changed my attitude completely.
“Dig!!! Lazarus, Dig!!!” (click the link to listen at Lala.com) is a flawless album. The modern definition of Southern Goth, the Bad Seeds create the perfect mise en scene for Cave’s vocals with their deeply pulsating and swaggering rhythms and swirling, sparking organs. Cave and the band are full of energy, something many have attributed to the recent Grinderman side project that involved much of the same cast. The fire they unleashed on that record is still burning, but here it’s reined in, tamed enough to better serve the songs and allow more breathing room. Throughout, Cave is in top form, a half-mad preacher holding service with his unholy orchestra in a kudzu-choked grove in the darkest depths of a haunted swamp.
This album enthralls, and more importantly it inspires me to take another listen to some of Cave’s other work. This fourteenth album just might be the gateway drug that leads me into some of his more challenging work.