God is everywhere in Nick Cave’s new album, No More Shall We Part, but I really doubt that Cave agrees with Dave. In Isaiah, God says to the
Israelites, “Come now, and let us reason together: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.” It’s from this verse, presumably, that Cave got the central image for “Fifteen Feet of Pure White Snow,” one of the songs on No More. It takes on a quite different meaning in Cave’s hands, though. “Where is Mark?” he asks. “Where is Matthew / Now it’s getting dark? / Where is John? They are all out back / Under fifteen feet of pure white snow.”
It’s hard to know what we ought to make of this image. Does it mean that the gospel writers, and by extension anyone who
believes in a loving God, suffer under the weight of their own delusions? I’m not sure. Cave is too equivocal for us to tell what he really thinks. Later on in the same song, he sings, “Is there anybody here who feels this low? / Under 15 feet of pure white snow: / Raise your hands up to the sky –” The association of the snow and the sky, even if only hinted at, suggests that all of us sublunary earth-dwellers are trapped beneath 15 feet of snow — and what we see here is not all that exists.
But in the end, who the hell knows what Cave’s trying to say? Part of the problem with his songs is that he tries to tread provocatively between religion and unbelief, but ends up making no sense at all. “As I Sat Sadly by Her Side” tells the story of a conversation between a man and woman as told from the man’s point of view. The woman starts off by trying to find beauty in the world’s confusion, but the man sees everyone only “concerned with their immediate need — / Witness the man reaching up from the gutter / See the other one stumbling on who cannot see.” No, the woman replies, “God does not care for your benevolence / Any more than he cares for the lack of it in others. / Sorrows pile up around you / Ugly and over-inflated,” and then turns away with tears in her eyes. “I could not wipe the smile from my face,” says the man.
What’s going on in this song? Does it criticize how the unhappy of the world depress the cheerful with their own gloom, and do it with perverse pleasure? And if we’re supposed to sympathize with the woman’s opinions, then does Cave believe, without really caring, that God exists? Perhaps, but the same moral disgust the man expresses is expressed by Cave, too, in other songs on this album. It’s difficult not to partly identify the man with Cave himself, especially since it’s the man that tells the story.
After listening to the album a few times, one begins to tire of the lyrics, since they are so deliberately obscure. And yet, because of the reserved arrangements on No More, it’s hard to stop paying attention to them. Nick Cave has clearly taken the complete Leonard Cohen Course in Songwriting, but the inevitable comparison is hardly flattering. Whereas Cohen’s lyrics at their frequent best are unmercifully lucid and compressed, Cave’s are often just pseudo-literary sprawl.
Now, the music of No More, by itself, is not unimpressive. Imagine a brilliant lounge singer with a voice capable of, well, miracles, and you’ve got a pretty good idea of what the best songs on this release sound like. On “We Came Along This Road,” for instance, an already beautiful melody is made even more so by a perfect mixture of piano, guitar and strings. This brings us to another strength of this album: the Bad Seeds. Cave is lucky to have them; they’ve got formidable chops, and because many of them are also involved in the mixing, they’re given plenty of opportunities to display them.
The Bad Seeds’ musicianship and Cave’s songwriting come together for the best effect only in those songs where God makes no appearance. This album’s love songs are its best works: “Love Letter,” “Sweetheart Come,” and “We Came Along This Road.” In these the music is moving and the lyrics are simple, unpretentious and even wise — even if they do warn endlessly of sadness and mistakes. I suppose it’s better to hear the rebuke of the wise than the song of fools.