Graded on a Curve:
Nick Cave &
The Bad Seeds,
Henry’s Dream

Is it just me, or is Nick Cave a bad poet and a parody of a Vegas lounge crooner?

I know the man has an enormous cult who think he’s this big literary genius (wrote a novel and everything!), but what I hear when I listen to 1992’s Henry’s Dream (The Bad Seeds’ seventh) is bad Walker Brothers-school shlock with more pretentious lyrics.

Murder ballad “John Finn’s Wife” may be a lot of things, but immortal poetry ain’t one of them; lines like “Dancers writhed and squirmed and then/Came apart and then writhed again/Like squirming flies on a pin” ain’t exactly going to win Cave an exulted place on Parnassus, people.

Cave’s music is certainly distinctive. His voice is stentorian and sepulchral–if a funeral parlor could sing, it would sound like our Nick. The music is brooding, blues-based and lachrymose to a fault, the stuff of seances, barroom wakes and Halloween soirees. Lyrically, Cave’s fixated upon death, murder, suicide–the usual gothic suspects. He also has a disconcerting knack for the flowery and literary. If you can tell me what “the loom of the land” means, I’ll give you five bucks (or as Nick would probably say, doubloons).

But to go back to the beginning, I suspect it’s just me. Cave’s such a gloomy Gus I want to pat him on the back and tell him everything’s going to be okay. Which is just another way of saying I can’t help but think of his unremitting morosity as anything but an annoying affection–a shtick that grates on my nerves, and fast.

I wish he’d listen to some Killdozer, who understood that sometimes it’s better to play the dark stuff for laffs, and it’s arguable that on the totally over the top LP Murder Ballads he does just that. But such sure ain’t the case on Henry’s Dream.

That said, it’s kind of ridiculous to fault a guy for not being something he ain’t, so it all comes down to a matter of taste–I can either accept the Thanatos-obsessed Cave as he is, or leave the poor man in peace. And it’s not as if Henry’s Dream is devoid of charm; “Straight to You” is a divine and lovely thing despite the bad poesy (“All the towers of ivory are crumbling/And the swallows have sharpened their beaks”).

But for the most part his very portentous songs come off as overwrought; “John Finn’s Wife” is Country & Dingo at its most half-baked, while “Papa Won’t Leave You, Henry” is an example of Australian Gothic at its most overwrought. It’s got everything you could ask for in a low-budget horror flick: a house with blood-red bowels (really?), wet-lipped women with greasy fists (huh?)–a fag in a whalebone corset even! And thesaurus-slinger Nick even has the chutzpah to toss in the word “favela” (look it up–I had to!).

Most of the others don’t do much for me either. “I Had a Dream, Joe” is my idea of a nightmare; Cave’s notion of poetry runs to such quaint diction as “It was autumn time and thickly fell the leaves” and lines like “The night had been a giant, dribbling and pacing the boards.” As for the astoundingly doleful “Christina the Astonishing,” its lyrics about religion, resurrection and “the stink of human corruption” just make me laugh, especially when backed by the cheesy funeral parlor organ.

“Jack the Ripper”’s purple poesy is somewhat ameliorated by its nifty blues setting, but lines like “We bed in a bucket of butcher’s knives” do a disservice to alliteration. “Brother, My Cup Is Empty” at least has some propulsion going for it, but I find myself tuning out the second Cave sings, “I am the captain of my pain.” I mean, come on. Everybody knows Sting is the King of Pain! And I call bullshit when I run across lines like, “To see her accusing finger spurt.” Seriously, how exactly does that work?

Aside from “Straight to You,” “When I First Came to Town” is the only tune on Henry’s Dream that doesn’t inspire involuntary facial twitching. I like the acoustic guitars and the simple melody and the martial drumming–the song has a beguiling Doors feel to it. And not a single word of it offends my tender poetic sensibilities.

Nick Cave is Tom Waits with death on the brain, and Australia’s answer to Jim Morrison. He’s got the same deep voice, the same poetic aspirations, the same dark and brooding sensuality–no wonder the little girls understand. But Jimbo, who put his faith in Dionysius as well as Thanatos, painted with a broader palette; Cave’s color scheme is limited to blood-red and bible black, and his work gets oppressive fast.

Rock has produced some truly wonderful wordsmiths; Randy Newman, John Darnielle, Mark Eitzel, Edward Hamell, Mark E. Smith, Morrissey, and Michael Gerald spring immediately to mind. Cave, not so much–his ambitions far exceed his reach, and his obsessions strike me as faintly silly. Would it kill the man to smile or crack a joke? The human heart is dark, but to say the sun doesn’t break through the clouds now and again is to perpetuate a monstrous lie.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
C-

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