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Unforgettable Fire


Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds: Nocturama

Anti-, 2003

Rating: 3.8



Posted: February 17, 2003

By Laurence Station

For those who think Nick Cave has mellowed now that middle age has set in -- especially in light of 1997's brooding, devotional The Boatman's Call and 2001's spiritually questing No More Shall We Part -- Nocturama, the twelfth studio release from Cave and his crack backing band the Bad Seeds, puts such speculation to rest. Nocturama certainly includes its share of spare ballads and somber meditations on marriage and faith, but it also sports a raw, less-refined quality, evoking the spirit of earlier albums like From Her to Eternity and The Firstborn Is Dead. While the slow numbers still outnumber the hard-charging, full-blooded cuts, Nocturama proves the fire still rages within Cave's belly, a fact that saves it from becoming a mere retread of ideas more fully explored in his recent work.

"Wonderful Life" sets the album's tone; it's a sinuous piano and pedal steel affair, in which Cave promises "It's a wonderful life," providing "you can find it." Resistance has been sanded away. The voice is older, tired, and yet still wary of convention. Cave's cynicism creeps in on "Right Out of Your Hand," with the singer bitterly noting "Give a sucker an even break / He'll lose it all, every time." "He Wants You," by contrast, is a straight, beautifully played piano ballad, all bleeding-heart romanticism, that would find itself right at home with the songs on No More Shall We Part.

But it's with "Bring It On," featuring guest vocalist Chris Bailey (ex-Saints), that things start to get interesting, with Cave and the Bad Seeds injecting a much-needed shot of adrenaline. A big guitar attack, impassioned chorus and breakneck sense of immediacy mesh flawlessly, while Bailey's throaty growl works surprisingly well with Cave's weathered croon. "Dead Man in My Bed," in which a dissatisfied wife gets her say, is positively incendiary, the moment where Cave and the boys successfully tap into the elemental fury of their early days.

"There Is a Town" is nostalgic without being sappy, sporting the following signature metaphysical Cave musing: "And so it goes / And so it seems / That God lives only in our dreams." "Rock of Gibraltar" and "She Passed by My Window" threaten to slow things to a complete crawl, but they're completely obliterated by "Babe, I'm on Fire," a near-15-minute "Can I get a witness?" testimonial to Cave's burning lust. Over 40 verses, it manages to repeat itself without once losing potency. (This may also be the only song in the history of popular music that manages to rhyme "Chinese contortionist" with "backyard abortionist.") "Babe" is an amazing tour de force, a high point in the entire Cave and Bad Seeds catalog, and it single-handedly elevates Nocturama from a decent album to a stellar one. The old cliché about buying an album for just one song fits here: "Babe, I'm on Fire" is nothing less than a resurrection of Cave at his most demonically-inspired, spiritually-challenged best.

Nocturama falls short of the masterful Boatman's Call, and lacks the unifying lyrical and musical themes found on No More Shall We Part. But it manages to accomplish what neither of those records did, unleashing the full fury of Cave and the Bad Seeds (last seen at some point during the mid '90s). For that, Nocturama will undoubtedly hold a special place in the hearts of longtime Cave fans.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A classic
 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
 1.1-1.9: Pretty bad
 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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