Although long-running Australian cult hero Nick Cave has never produced anything without merit, it was hard to imagine how his 14th studio album with the sprawling collective known as the Bad Seeds could top last year's self-titled disc by his one-off, mostly-for-yucks side project Grinderman, a deliriously grungy burst of blues-rock brilliance. No, "Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!" doesn't better my choice for the best album of 2007. But it is the strongest Bad Seeds disc since the potent one-two punch of "The Boatman's Call" and "No More Shall We Part" in 1997 and 2001, and it does find the 50-year-old singer as vital as ever at an age where, as the British newspaper the Guardian noted, "Paul McCartney released 'Off the Ground' [and] Bob Dylan was favoring the world with 'Wiggle Wiggle.'"
Fans who worried that the Bad Seeds would loose some of their intensity with the departure of veteran guitarist Blixa (Einsturzende Neubauten) Bargeld -- which seemed to be the case on "Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus" (2004), a moody and orchestral double-disc epic -- will be surprised to find that Cave's replacement foil and Grinderman partner Warren Ellis has only made the singer more focused and concise. The violinist and multi-instrumentalist brings out the nastiest in Nick, spurring him on to greater outrage and a more awesome noise, much as John Cale does with Lou Reed.
That duo's first band has been an influence on Cave since he first surfaced as the vocalist for the Birthday Party, but he's never been closer to matching the Velvet Underground's peerless mix of primal aggression and pop seduction, and he cops to that being the goal on "Today's Lesson," with lyrics that reference three Velvets songs and music that cribs from at least that many, with plenty of Stooges thrown in for good measure.
Lyrically, some critics are saying that what "Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus" was to Cave's fascination with Dickensian England, "Dig!!! Lazarus, Dig!!!" is to his obsession with the darkest corners of American mythology. But the fact is the artist has always been fascinated with this country's backwaters ("Saint Huck" was the centerpiece of the first Bad Seeds album in 1984), especially where they intersect with his favorite book, the Old Testament. And if all of that sounds like familiar turf for Cave, well, his piercing literary wit has never been sharper. Witness the backhanded compliments and/or insults tossed at three great American writers in just one couplet of "Call Upon the Author": "Bukowski was a jerk! Berryman was best!/He wrote like wet papier mache, went the Heming-way weirdly on wings and with maximum pain/We call upon the author to explain!"
In the end, if any disc this side of "Grinderman" can make you laugh harder while banging your head more in a lustful frenzy, I'd sure be eager to hear it.
Singer and bassist Dave Monks and his mates do share some traits with indie-rock heroes of the moment such as the Decemberists and Vampire Weekend: There are those high, reedy vocals and the college English-major approach to lyric-writing. "Dead lovers salivate/Broken hearts tessellate tonight," Monks sings in "Tessellate," a word I'm not ashamed to say I had to look up; Merriam-Webster says it means "to form into or adorn with mosaic." But the pretensions of Tokyo Police Club are never off-putting (as the Decemberists are to some) or smug (as Vampire Weekend definitely is), and in the end, its sheer glee and energetic devotion to big, brassy melodies carry the day.