The baddest seed

Nick Cave digs in and gets his hands bloody

Cave has struggled with his own demons over time; his publicized bouts with heroin are both responsible for and the result of his self-destructive persona. Yet Cave does not shy away from giving guided tours through the dark terrain of his personality. From the chaotic 1984 From Her to Eternity to the serene, post-detox 1990 The Good Son, Cave has put his mangled heart on the plate and served it to guests.

He's a throwback artist in many respects, the tortured and lost writer who uses his craft to illuminate the darker recesses only to find there's no bottom to the well. He's forever screwed, looking for something he thinks he's lost but never actually possessed in the first damn place.

"Happiness to me is about a sense of order in my life," he explains. "I can feel two sides pulling against one another. One side of my personality is very much about chaos and confusion and self-destruction. The other side is far more creative, which is about order and things having their place, and that's when I'm feeling content and happy about things. Left to my own devices, I'm being on my own all the time, and that can be a damaging kind of thing."

Like another writer, William Burroughs, Cave plunged into the heart of darkness as an amateur and resurfaced as the born-again artist. With his penchant for finding humor in the macabre, he can create characters and situations so sordid that the end result is bizarrely funny, and it's a talent most often reserved for those who've hung by their heels above the abyss and been kissed by the flames below.

Their tales are always visceral, always fascinating, always engrossing, but none more so for Cave than those on his new album Murder Ballads--an appropriate, and long overdue, record for Cave, for whom murder has always been a prominent subject. It's a bleak, thrilling record that splashes the listener in gore as it romps through the entrails; Cave kills with glee, like a serial killer with a day pass from the penitentiary, smiling as he blows the heads off young boys who go down on him. Cave describes the record as a side project, though, just an impersonal album that alleviates the heavy emotional toll Let Love In took on him.

"I wanted a real break from the personal lyrics I wrote for Let Love In," he says. "I wanted to make a record that had nothing about me in it, a series of stories that I wrote with some kind of music to it written very quickly and played quickly behind it. The music was really just designed to carry along the words. It wasn't intended to be a true Bad Seeds record, but it has become one now."

Ironically, this so-called side project happens to contain some of Cave's best writing. He flexes his lyrical muscle with such powerful conviction that Murder Ballads is one of the young year's finest works, especially with songs like "O'Malley's Bar" (an epic tale that is to the pop song what the novella is to the paragraph), the updated gangsta "Stagger Lee," and "The Kindness of Strangers" that are so over-the-top in their violent content and Cave's gut-wrenching delivery they end up sounding absurdly hilarious.

Cave is like directors Quentin Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez, wallowing in the excesses and laughing as they choke on the blood; they go to the extremes, then take it 10 steps farther till you either recoil or laugh. Either way, they make their points, then drive them through your head.

"This record is basically a lighthearted comic record," says the man who spends one song describing how he did in each victim ("The bullet...blew his bowels out on the floor"). "I don't think the kind of murder that's going on in this world today is that way. The songs don't appear modern. A lot of them are steeped in the traditional genre of the murder ballad, which I find interesting coming from the Scottish-English-Irish ballads that were written many years ago and had that kind of inborn romanticism about the notion of murder--'a man finds a woman and he takes her down the river and kills her' type of thing.

"This is a hopelessly outdated notion of what murder is actually like. There is something that appeals to me about that."

Interestingly enough, the mass killer in "O'Malley's Bar," who executes all the bar patrons while sporting an erection, is sketched to look like Cave himself. He stands tall and thin, and his head is covered with a thick mane of black hair. When told the murderous narrator resembles his creator, Cave chuckles.

"Does he? It's a humorous song and I kind of based it on myself a little bit." He ponders the implications. "It's just a comic device. I wouldn't read too much into that.

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