An Aladdin's Cave

Never mind the punctuation, here's the story: Aussie rocker returns from side project re-energised and dives into new collaboration with Bad Seeds, resulting in a fabulous, dark and twisted assault on the earsNICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS: DIG, LAZARUS, DIG!!! ****

MUTE, 12.99

NICK Cave is well known for his dramatic, nay apocalyptic pronouncements. The last time he released an album with his Bad Seeds – 2004's double offering Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus – he had a gospel choir in tow for full fire-and-brimstone effect. But he has never gone in for exclamation marks the way he does on this album.

He is not just profligate with the exclamation marks though. The man has gone punctuation crazy, full stop. There are capital letters all over the shop, parentheses flying about like no-one's business, plus dashes, forward slashes and ellipses strewn all about the lyric booklet of Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! – which, without wanting to get too grammatical about it, is written (in dazzling lightbulbs) as Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!! on the front cover, but minus a whole three exclamation marks on the CD spine. There appears to be some confusion as to just how exclamatory the exhortation is supposed to be. But the question – if one may be allowed a simple question mark at this juncture – is: how can one man's blood pressure withstand such apoplexy?

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The strange thing is that Cave doesn't actually sound too het up when you get down to listening to the album. Maybe he already poured most of his reserves of bile and frustration into last year's Grinderman diversion, that feral facial hair foursome he got together with the more hirsute members of the Bad Seeds. Now the whole gang is back together and the results are either a model of brooding restraint, playful, effortlessly hip jamming, or retro rock'n'rolling.

But if you crave Cave at his most recklessly romantic, you may be disappointed. For much of the time, Cave is having a ball, idly spinning stories about shiftless drifters, peppered with dark wit or laced with weird abstraction.

The swinging title track is one of a couple of absurd entertainments. Just as Aidan Moffat's new spoken word album includes a kitchen sink sequel to Grease, here Cave imagines what might have happened to Lazarus after he was resurrected by Jesus. "He never asked to be raised up from the tomb," thunders our narrator, envisaging a rise and fall scenario on the streets of modern-day New York for his second-chance protagonist, with the Bad Seeds acting as the funky Hebrew chorus.

Today's Lesson is a strutting street odyssey infused with Lou Reed and Patti Smith punk kicks, plus a dash of Iggy Pop delinquency and some frazzled Hammond organ. Other tracks make less of a scene: Moonland is a nocturnal trawl, bristling with latent soul, while the repetitive Night Of The Lotus Eaters has the feel of an incidental soundtrack. Both are big on atmosphere, but less satisfying as songs.

We Call Upon The Author is another groovy jam in the vein of the title track, over which Cave sermonises, gleefully shaking a fist at God for all the ludicrous chaos he encounters, while the Bad Seeds "doop-doop" in the background. The lyrics showcase Cave at his funniest and most audacious, testing out the Calvin & Hobbes adage that "verbing weirds language" with lines such as "I go guruing down the street" and "who is this great burdensome slavering dog-thing that mediocres my every thought?"

There is love of sorts to be had, but it's borderline twisted. Hold On To Yourself is Cave's idea of a seduction story, with the Bad Seeds quietly pottering away in the background, letting Nick and his girl exercise their strange proclivities. Lie Down Here (& Be My Girl) coasts along like a freewheeling rock'n'roll number should, but lyrically it is possibly even more demented, progressing from the poetic – "we've been scribbled in the margins of a story that is patently absurd" – to the needy and obsessive.

Cave is in more tender mood on Jesus Of The Moon, accompanied by some lovely, lyrical flute from Warren Ellis, but ultimately it's not good news for the object of his affections, as he drifts away, lamenting "there was a chord in you I could not find to strike". The Bad Seeds then get back into their low-slung groove for the closing jam. More News From Nowhere is an eight-minute beat saga, featuring a Walk On The Wild Side-style catalogue of (mostly female) characters, sketched out in economical but evocative terms by the hustler of a narrator.

Overall, Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! is a pretty laid-back expression of a haywire lyrical vision. It might not rank among the most emotionally arresting or musically dramatic of Cave's albums, but even rock'n'roll poets sometimes have to just kick back and survey the madness with an arched eyebrow.

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