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Rock and Roll Feature: No More Shall We Part with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
This is the twenty-eighth in a series of Rock & Roll features I'm writing for this site. I'm a rock and roller, so this column is a way for me to feature a different album that I like, from different genres every month.
For this month's featured album I actually had a hard time picking... the hardest time I've had since I started writing these monthly features. I don't like to force my writing so I delayed the feature a little longer than I would have liked, but eventually was struck by the perfect choice. I've owned this album for a while and have appreciated it, but hadn't actually sat down to really explore it at length till recently. It's one that might be slightly unexpected or even unknown...heck to some the artist/band will be completely unknown. It's an album that appears first as a departure from the artist's sound, but on closer examination reveals itself more as a subtle distillation of that sound instead... an album that seems innocuous on first listen, but grows and draws you in... a sleeper album.
I am confident that from those of you who choose to explore this album based on my recommendation, there will be a number who will simply hate it (although if I do this feature right you should have an idea what to expect before hand). Others might need to let these songs grow on them, but I think they'll eventually become just as engrossed with it as I have. I guess that's true about any album, but I think it's especially true about this one.
If you've been following the Soul of Rock 'n' Roll for a while now, my picking a Nick Cave album shouldn't exactly be a surprised. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, along with Cave's side project Grinderman, were some of the first bands I discovered directly through my work running this site. I hadn't even heard of them before then, but since, I've really become a big fan of Cave's music in all forms, adding the majority of his discography to my collection relatively quickly. I have even written at length about both the Bad Seeds and Grinderman (do a quick search on the site if you're interested).
No, picking a Bad Seeds album is not a surprise... picking this particular album might be though.
Yep...When faced with choosing an album to feature from Cave's extensive exploration of noisy, post-punk art meets indie rock meets Gothic tinged Americana... I picked an album almost entirely made up of piano driven ballads!
The album I speak of is the 2001 release from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds: No More Shall We Part.
If this is the first you are hearing of Nick Cave, his music is probably best categorized as post punk. It draws heavily from people like the Velvet Underground and other noise rock pioneers, the art rock of bands from the same time (like the Cure) and progressive experimentation, but also features a healthy dose of American folk. Its easy to hear the influence of Johnny Cash or Bob Dylan in Cave's songs, but they're wrapped up in a dark, visceral, almost Gothic exterior. Top everything off with lyrics full of very detailed, often ironic, imagery related to either religion or the more primal of human emotions and actions (like murder)... oh and a bit of social comment too... and you have a good idea what it's like.
If you're familiar with Cave you might know of his more recent (and excellent) album Dig! Lazarus Dig!, or some of his more well known ones like Abattoir Blues or Murder Ballads. Those albums are a better representation of the sound of the Bad Seeds as a whole, but amongst that catalog, there are a few albums that are quite different as well... they're a bit on the softer side. Albums like The Boatman's Call or today's feature No More Shall We Part, are both strongly driven by piano and are geared more towards ballads and distinctly different than the rest of the Bad Seeds work.
Of course there are softer songs throughout the rest of the Bad Seeds catalog as well, but entire albums of them might seem out of place. And on first listen, this album does seem like a bit of a departure from the more familiar work of the Cave and company as it's not nearly as "rockin'" as one might expect. I'm sure that will be a little off putting to some... it certainly was to me at first, and was a big part of why it took me so long to get into this album. On closer inspection though, No More Shall We Part sounds more like a distillation Cave's style... reducing it to its most basic constructs and emotions, creating something that not only fits in perfectly amongst the rest of his catalog, but is actually some of his more heartfelt songs and most powerful melodies.
The album starts off with "As I Sat Sadly By Her Side". With it's subtle guitar strumming and simple, but achingly sad, piano melody. This song was something of the "gateway drug" for me in terms of encouraging me to explore this album further. I heard it and the melody just wormed it's way into my mind... speaking volumes with each note. And then one day I listened to it and was just floored at how perfect a song it really is. Along with the melody there's the vocals, delivered in Cave's trademark baritone, speaking of the woes of the world and the pain of people in conflict. It's a powerful song and one that sets the tone for the album.
The 'title track", "And No More Shall We Part" is even more restrained than the opener. Cave channels plodding, lounge style piano jazz to create a heart wrenching ballad with minimal instrumentation and an emphasis on the strain of his voice. I especially like the ending on this one as the melody shifts and provides one of those subtle "cloud parting" moments as the band fills in the background softly with percussion, strings and haunting backing vocals. "Hallelujah" is another personal favorite of mine with it's violin lines and very subtle bluesy swagger. Vocally this one also contains some of my favorite Cave images like "... my piano crouched in the corner of my room with all it's teeth bared..." And he delivers these lines with a slight sneer to emphasize their emotional charge and up their intensity. I also love the ending of this track with the hypnotic, chant like backing vocals as they give the song a sad, heavy quality as it builds and then burns out.
"Love Letter" is pretty much what you'd expect from the title. Tinkling piano and subtle backing strings enhance the melody and put a lot of weight in Cave's already weighty words throughout this ballad. It never drifts too close to the sappy side of things though, instead sounding melancholy, authentic and genuinely emotional throughout.
If you're a fan of cave's other albums "Fifteen Feet of Pure White Snow" might be the song that is most directly tied to them... and it's a killer song too, one of the more "rockin'" ones from this album. Still underpinned by a deceptively simple piano melody, there are surges throughout, coinciding with Cave's vocal sneer, where the song builds and suggests that it could erupt into full fledged screaming noise experimentation at any time... but it doesn't. Instead, it surges and soars to stunning climaxes, complete with layers of sound and vocals... more "clouds parting sun streaming through" kind of moments... that makes this song one of my all time favorites from throughout Nick Cave's entire catalog.
"God is in the House" follows. It's another slower, true ballad although the word play and lyrical imagery throughout make this track deserves a really close listen... there's some great irony and social comment hidden in there I'm pretty sure.
The trio of "Oh My Lord", "Sweetheart Come" and "The Sorrowful Wife" are all favorites of mine. The first starts off with that slow piano again, but it's melody builds, complete with layers of backing vocals and subtle electric violin parts, but by the end, the song has started to break down with hints of gritty, razors edge noise and snarling vocals creeping through. It's a really cool effect that turns this one into a real powerful outpouring of emotion. The middle of these three is a truly heartfelt ballad with the emphasis on jazzy sounding piano and sweeping melody again. Along with just being a sweet love song, I also like the little turns of phrase throughout that just barely give this one an edge that a "normal" love song wouldn't have... that's trademark Nick Cave there. The last of this trio is a "rocker" you could say. It's another build and release number that starts off slow and bluesy, but hits hard as gritty guitar starts to underpin those repeated piano chords. By the end its exploding at the seams with noise and primal emotion, even more so than "Oh My Lord". It's pushed higher by the pauses and surges throughout, each one hanging and the dropping... a musical hammer strike each time if you will. It's a great arrangement, great highpoint for the album and a great song.
"We Came Along This Road" follows in a much more subdued manner, but still features a compelling melody, plenty of emotion throughout and a cool, albeit more subtle, dramatic conclusion with layers of strings and sounds, before receding into the dark. "Gates to the Garden" is probably bluesiest track on this album. It has a more seductive rhythmic style but never steps too far outside the feel of the rest of the album. It also seems to shift tonality throughout, alternating a dark smokiness with lighter moments throughout the melody, providing a unique contrast moment to moment.
Then the album closes with "Darker With the Day". The piano melody from this one seems to be the coda to all these songs. Complete with haunting airy backing vocals and the appropriately dramatic conclusion, I just can't think of a better way to sum everything up than this one. It's the perfect track to close out a very subdued, but also incredibly emotionally powerful album.
And so there you have it... an entire album of piano driven ballad-esque songs from the man behind the black as night, Gothic grind of "Stagger Lee" (from Murder Ballads) and more recently the explosive gritty, raunchy, rough edged rock and roll of Grinderman... who would have thought an artist could cover so much ground so well?
Like I said, it isn't as if there aren't plenty of great lighter songs throughout the rest of the Bad Seeds discography, but a whole album of them from this band seems like an odd idea at first. Still, there is plenty of Cave's unique writing style and word play throughout these songs to remind you that this is still the same guy though.
In fact I actually think this album is one of his best. The songwriting and arrangements are stellar. Plus, although on the first listen having so many songs starting off with slow bits of piano might sound repetitive, after a while it just seems to tie everything together really well, making the songs subtle shades and variations on a theme per say... unique, but tied together by their common tonality and timbre.
That concept applies to the songwriting itself as well. With these twelve tracks Nick Cave seems to take the ideas that run through all of his music and cut out anything that doesn't perfectly craft the emotions he's looking for. The result are slim, soft and subdued (for the most part) tracks that don't come right at you, but creep up on you and surprise you with their emotional power... it's a total sleeper album within the Bad Seeds catalog... a soft one that doesn't rock out or burst with experimentation, but is extremely powerful none the less.
If you're completely new to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, I cannot honestly recommend this album as the best starting point... but then again each of his albums is pretty unique so you could start anywhere really. You could start here, you could start at the beginning or with their most recent. No matter where you start though, don't dismiss any of Nick Cave's work at first listen... they are all unique and amazing.
If you're familiar with the Seeds, but have always stuck to the more aggressive or rock oriented of Cave's work... give this album a listen... No, give it like 4-5 listens. It probably won't hit you the first time through and you might actually be off put by just how restrained an album this one is, but I firmly believe this is one of his best and given a chance, these songs will surprise people with their power and beauty.
In my opinion, No More Shall We Part is not only a "sleeper album" of sorts, but also one of Nick Cave's masterpieces... and just great rock and roll start to finish.
You can find this album directly from Amazon here: No More Shall We Part