From Nicholson’s Joker to Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter, society has consistently shown one thing — everyone loves a good villain. Nick Cave has spent the better part of 20 years making a living off this very phenomenon. That, combined with his innate ability to repeatedly craft brilliant pieces of musical theatre, has consistently placed Cave among the upper echelon of modern songwriters.
When you’ve written songs like "Jack the Ripper," songs about Joseph Stalin ("Red Right Hand") and composed an entire album aptly entitled Murder Ballads, you tend to get a reputation as being a tad sinister. But in 1997’s The Boatman’s Call and 2001’s No More Shall We Part, Cave seems to have mellowed, trading misery for melody and bombast for beauty. Nocturama, his twelfth and most recent release, attempts to resolve these two conflicting personalities.
Written and recorded in seven days in while on break from an Australian tour, Cave says of the record, "The idea was to take some of the preciousness about the making of the record away…I didn’t reflect on the songs again, or play them again. Once they were written, that was it." While Cave’s desire to challenge himself and his song writing methodology is admirable, the album ultimately suffers from an overall lack of vision and self-editing. The songs don’t necessarily clash with each other, but they don’t weave together an overall experience, either.
The slower ballads on Nocturama, which comprise the majority, come off sounding remarkably average, if not amateurish; if it weren’t for Cave’s stature as a writer and presence as a voice, they might not be worth a second listen. "Wonderful Life," "He Wants You," and "Rock Of Gibraltar," while flawless and beautiful, lack that certain haunting spirit that makes Nick Cave so special. Listeners have come to expect that while he often ruminates about longing and desire, there is this sense he is secretly and simultaneously plotting your grisly demise.
Cave is at his best on Nocturama when he returns to his roots. "Dead Man In My Bed" and the album’s finale, the 14-minute opus called "Babe, I’m On Fire," recall Cave’s early days in the Birthday Party, his post-punk noise conglomerate of the early ’80s. Equally menacing and fast-paced, both tracks also evoke more recent anthems like "I Had A Dream Joe," "Jangling Jack," and "Thirsty Dog" from 1992’s Henry’s Dream, and 1994’s Let Love In, respectively. In "Dead Man In My Bed," a hurried tale about just that, Cave gets right to the gruesome point, "…he used to be so good to me, but now he smells so fucking bad…" While not as lyrically macabre as "Dead Man," "Babe, I’m On Fire" weaves a powerful 39-verse stream of conscious rant on the universality of heartache and misery.
Overall, though it closes on the highest of notes, Nocturama remains unconvincing. It’s hard to say if, since expectations are so high, that the album sounds worse than it is because it doesn’t reek of perfection, or if this is genuinely a sub-par effort. In either case Noctorama leaves us wanting and expecting more.