Monday, 29 September 2008

Top 100 Albums - #19: No More Shall We Part (2001)

At number 19 is No More Shall We Part, the penultimate chart entry for Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds.
The release of The Boatman's Call in March 1997 marked a departure for Cave's songwriting. Right up to its predecessor, Murder Ballads (1996), the Bad Seeds' songs had been characterised by violence and irony in near-industrial quantities; now, Cave was being confessional and honest, producing beautiful melodies on the piano and providing heartfelt lyrics to match. Critics hailed it as the band's masterpiece, the summation of all their work. In the four years after its release, the band briefly toured before Cave withdrew from public life to overcome the heroin addition which had dogged him for 20 years. A best-of compilation was released in 1998, and around this time Cave married British model Susie Bick. Cave finally beat his addiction in 2000 and quickly returned to the studio to recover his muse.

No More Shall We Part begins with 'As I Sat Sadly By Her Side', a very apt means of introducing us to this new post-heroin Cave. With the opening guitar strum, all seems normal, but once the piano comes in you things quickly change. Cave's playing is surprisingly sweet for a male touch, even considering the upper registers dominate the musical landscape. In true Cave style, there are so many lyrics that it is often overwhelming and hard to pick out killer lines. Instead, you are bathed in a wave of unbelievable sadness. The mood is almost funereal, without a trace of Cave's venomous or ironic streaks, and you are completely taken in.

The title track introduces an a cappella element which is a feature of this album. On previous albums, especially Murder Ballads, such a title would have hinted at darker subject matters - instead of marrying his lover, as here, the protagonist would be brutally murdering her and then burying her deep in a forest. The result is, suffice to say, wierd. The mood is still dark, dour and sombre, even at the points where you are most convinced that the sepulchral Cave is happy (for once). The violins in the final third - arranged by Mick Harvey - help no end, but you are still left with questions alongside the feeling of wonder.

There are more strings on offer on 'Hallelujah'. Cave is quicker here, more 'upbeat' (for want of a better word), but the beat continues to move at a crawl. Thomas Wylder's drumming consists of simple cross-stick snare and jazzy ride work, all at a snail's pace and just as flashy. This juxtaposition never becomes completely annoying or unnerving, which is just as well considering that this is the longest track, at 7:48. But this remains one for Cave devotees - it's very good, but everyone else will wish it were about half the length.

With 'Love Letter', however, nothing is wasted. It is half the length of the last track, but Cave is not cutting any corners. On the contrary, this is deeper and more bittersweet than anything else on here. The piano from the first track is brightened up and paired with the languid violins to create a melody so sumptuous and yet so restrained. Cave sings sweetly and beautifully, crooning lines about a desperate plea to a dear love and just as on The Boatman's Call he is being completely honest. This may be slow, down-tempo and written in a cumbersome key, but you nevertheless find yourself completely captivated by what Cave has created. Take the second verse as an example:

A wicked wind whips up the hill
With a handful of hopeful words
I love her and I always will
The sky is ready to burst
Said something I did not mean to say
Said something I did not mean to say
Said something I did not mean to say
It all came out the wrong way

On top of this, the chorus is simple but serene; the band don't waste your time with superfluous images which are too clever to understand. This is a quiet slice of majesty, a true classic within the Bad Seeds catalogue and an underrated masterpiece outside of it.

'Fifteen Feet Of Pure White Snow' is the first hint we get that not everyone in the band is sitting comfortably with this new style. We still get the a cappella and the gorgeous piano of 'As I Sat Sadly By Her Side'. But on the chorus things explode just a little bit, as the drums wake up, jagged chords lurch forward from the piano and the bass gets just a little bit louder. Throughout this, it feels like Cave is acting as the safety valve. He still just manages to dominate, like the cork about to burst out of a champagne bottle, so that even in its violent ending the band is never allowed to emulate its choatic past. (The band would pull off the same trick on the follow-up, Nocturama (2003), with songs like 'Bring It On').

'God Is In The House' sees the continuation of the quiet and introspective mood we saw so much of on The Boatman's Call. The piano glides through the mix, with only some deep strings and subtle brushwork on the drums to disturb its grace. Cave's lyrics are sprawling and yearning, and we get another taste of his past self, all tinged in bitter irony. They are one long polemic against cozy American 'Christianity', in all its prudishness and double standards. But despite this acidic subject matter, we again find Cave restrained by himself, holding back, telling us less so he can give us so much more.

'Oh My Lord' kicks off the second half of the album with one of the most off-putting openings of any song. Cave half-croons, half-speaks I thought I'd talk a walk today totally out of tune and with contempt for any rhythm. Past the first 8 seconds, however, this is still a good song, if a little more repetitive than anything we have seen so far. As a result of this, many will be put off and not make it to the end of the song. Those that do, however, will have much to chew on, for this is a song that makes you think.

'Sweetheart Come' also has another off-putting opening - Come over here babe, out of key again - but recovers amply to justify its inclusion. More than that, this is one of the key songs on here, a song in which Cave is coming to terms with his new feelings, and is happy in his resignation. The key lines come early on: Seems we can be happy now/ Better late than never. This is clearly a eulogy to Bick, in which Cave is uninhibited and uncaged at last. 'The Sorrowful Wife', on the other hand, is a bit too long to past the same muster. Everything is weaker, from the choice of chords to the progression of the lyrics; you have barely gotten halfway through before you have soaked up all you can and want to move on. It's not helped by the jumped-up second half, with its atonal chords and even more atonal singing, in an eerie foreshadowing of Nocturama.

'We Came Along This Road' restores the calm and reinstates the pathos-ridden spirit, brutally tarnished by the last track. Where before his piano playing was questionable, here the richness has returned and his voice is back on form. Wylder plays his part, laying down a drum part which draws all the threads together and focuses you more on the sweetness of the chords. In the final third he is joined by some wonderful violins straight out of a Bach concerto which lift the song to new symphonic heights.

The last two tracks are broadly similar ventures, in terms of sound and quality. 'Gates Of The Garden' brings guitar back into the mix; Blixa Bargeld is given more room to impress, and his distorted slide work doesn't disappoint. The song is more overtly Biblical than a lot of stuff on here, but there is still plenty of room for alternative interpretations, like the work of all the best songwriters. 'Darker With The Day' has greater trepidation about it - the opening chords are minor and less sure of themselves, and Cave's voice has a more quivering quality to it. He sings like a disillusioned philosopher, walking into the fog to his death. At the heart, though, there is still love, deep and unquestioning love which settles his heart and reassures him that all will be well.

If there is one criticism to be made about No More Shall We Part, it is that listening to it is an exhausting experience. There is so much soul-bearing and soul-searching on here, and so much emotion to digest, that one can come away completely worn out. But while this album is heavy-going, it is not impossible. On the contrary, it is very easy to fall in love with this album, and to be amazed by the quality of songwriting on display. It may not have the quaint, childlike elegance of The Good Son (1990, #40), on the bombastic abandon of Abattoir Blues (2004, #69), but on almost every song we are encountered by a band at their most tight-knit and mature. On later albums, the older, more sprawling elements would return with mixed results, but here everything is tied down and neatly arranged for your pleasure. All you have to do is give it enough patience, and all will slowly become clear.

4.00 out of 5

Monday, 1 September 2008

Top 100 Albums - #20: Harbinger (1994)

American singer-songwriter Paula Cole kicks off the Top 20 with her debut album, Harbinger.
Paula Cole was born in Rockport, Massachusetts in 1968, to a visual artist and an entomologist. Both her parents were musical, encouraging her to sing and make her own music from a very young age. She was educated at the local Elementary School, before moving on to the Berklee College of Music in Boston aged 18 to study Jazz Singing and Improvisation. During her time there she became a leading light in the College's gospel choir. After graduating in 1989, Cole relocated to New York and spent the next four years trying to get recognised as a poet and musician. She was brought onto the world stage when Peter Gabriel invited her to perform on his Secret World tour in 1993, singing the vocals handled on record by the likes of Kate Bush and Sinead O'Connor. Her performance went down a storm and brought her to the attention of Imago Records.

Things don't start well. 'Happy Home' feels tired and cloyed from the outset. The warbles coming from the guitar have a cheap, lacklustre feel to them, and the track does very little justice to Cole's incredible voice. She makes matters worse with a set of lyrics that are decidedly second-rate - she jumps from the breathy We tried so hard to build a happy home so the utterly cliched Home sweet freedom. It's far from the worst track in the world, but it's hardly a convincing way to kick off a singing career.

'I Am So Ordinary' does that job a whole lot better. The guitar here is much brighter, the production is more intriguing, and Cole is allowed to open up a little more in what feels like a very close subject. The lyrics depict a woman feeling inadequate after her man starts seeing someone else, who just happens to be perfect in every way. Where a lot of songwriters will force their overly clever musings on you, Cole is content to conjure up little marvels that we only pick up on second or third time around - She is your Queen Cleopatra/ And I'm just your morning after being a prime example.

'Saturn Girl' sees the introduction of strings into the mix, a move which will prove beneficial as we go on. This is more poppy in sound, with a more catchy and fragmented chorus. But the song is still tinged with sadness, not enough to make you weep but more than enough to make your heart sink. Cole's delivery is bitter, like she is singing the scars that life has given her. In her higher registers, she is stricken and fearful, and lower down her anger comes to the surface for all to see. But despite this very personal approach to music, her introspection never becomes overwhelming. On the contrary, it makes you want to know her more.

This stricken mood continues on 'Watch The Woman's Hands'. One critic compared this to Kate Bush's later work, and there is something to that.¹ This is kookier than before, but there are none of the sacharine pop touches that characterised Bush's work on The Red Shoes (1993). Cole is still earthy, still downtrodden, and still angry. The rhythms created at the start, by a combination of bass and breathy beat-boxing, don't just work as a pulse. As the song rises, it serves to heighten the claustrophobia of her predicament, until you only have the yearning chorus as a means of escape.

'Bethlehem', on the other hand, provides no such escape route. At the start you will be lulled into a false sense of security with the slow tempo and lilting guitar. But lyrically this is Cole at her most vitriolic and bizarre. You may well find lines like I wanna be a dog/ Or I wanna to be a leaf rather off-putting, but the verses are starkly (and darkly) honest:

Everybody's talking 'bout Becky's bust
The boys on the basketball team just fuck
The same ten girls, who don't know who they are
They're looking for some comfort in the back of a car
The six packs of beer, the locker room jeers
I don't wanna be me, I don't wanna be here

On subsequent albums, from This Fire (1996) onwards, such sentiments would be diluted and sanitised by the poppier sounds on offer. But here, all you have is a brutally true glimpse into one unhappy childhood.

'Chiaroscuro' is a little brigher, with Cole showing her artier side. Sure enough, the lyrics reference goodness knows how many painters, none of which add much to this story of inter-racial love. But there is still enough on offer to tittillate you. This is one of the few songs to successfully combine rock singing and beat-boxing, of the kind that we saw earlier. Cole's voice is on true form, cresting the higher notes without becoming just a wailing blanket of noise like so many singers do. And the backing band excel themselves throughout, from the violins and cellos at the start to the echoey snare on the choruses.

Having gone all orchestral on us, the next track invites us to take a breath and refocus. To that end, 'Black Boots' is just Paula on her own with a piano. Where before her voice was treble-y and wailing, he she sings right down and her delivery takes on a smoky quality. The chords she drives out would fit in well at a 1920s club; and sure enough, this sounds both spooky and avant-garde. 'Oh John', however, is a case of too much information. The song chronicles the protagonist's coast to coast sexual exploits in the United States. While there's nothing particularly disgusting about the subject matter, or the way in which Cole says it, the thin nature of the subject means that this song quickly runs out of steam.

Fear not, though, because now the album really gets into its stride. 'Our Revenge' features one of the most original and captivating verse structures since the 1960s. The strings set the tone with some brooding minor chords, and then Cole steps up to the mic and delivers a fabulous performance. The lines run into seemlessly into one other, each ending with a long, haunting note from the gut which both chills you and excites you. In the choruses, the strings and Cole's angry vocals are balanced beautifully by the flamenco-esque acoustic guitar. This is not the catchiest song ever, but it's so wondefully put together and original that you find yourself deeply drawn to it.

'Dear Gertrude' is just as fabulous. More bizarre, more unhinged and more ethereal than 'Our Revenge', the first time you hear this you may be tempted to turn off. But slowly, the female vocals become warm, the lyrics worm their way into your subconscious and it all begins to make sense. The object of this song is unclear - 'Gertrude' begins as a spiritual essence of some kind, maybe an angel, but in the last verse, when Cole murmurs You're so lonely in my body, she could easily be her unborn child. Either way, this song is a deeply sensual experience. It will lift your spirits in ways you cannot really comprehend, and you will love it more each time you listen.

'Hitler's Brothers' is probably the strangest track on the album. Like on 'Our Revenge', we get an unusual set of lyrics, only this time the chorus grows by one or two lines each time. The precise reason for this is unclear - suffice to say that this is captivating enough for it not to be an incentive to listen to the end. The verses, meanwhile, are another look at racism, albeit more extreme than that in 'Chiaroscuro'. They describe death at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan, police corruption and the treatment of Chinese as second-class citizens. And if that wasn't enough, we get a parody of Hitler's Nuremberg address in the middle. Light, breezy stuff.

'She Can't Feel Anything Anymore' could casually be described as one of the greatest little-known wonders of modern music. But that label does not really justify just how special this is. Like 'Black Boots' this is stripped back, until it is just Cole with a mourning violin and a bass. The lyrics are incredibly harrowing; they describe an incident of domestic violence (or possibly even rape), but paint both victim and assailant as troubled, ordinary human beings so that you don't know who is in more pain. The lone violin between the verses slips out of the languid background and hums a bittersweet series of notes like the instrument itself is weeping. The closing words will chill you deeply:

He tried painfully,
He begged for her forgiveness on his knees
She give gracefully, but inside
But inside,
She still bleeds.

Cole gives a performance of an operatic nature, which blows everything else out of the water. You will listen to this track sparingly, because it is just so powerful, but there can be no doubt as to how remarkable an achievement it is.

The final two tracks are both poor relations of this, although 'Garden Of Eden' remains very good. Cole's spiritual side comes back to the surface as she grapples with the Genesis myth, again providing us with a soaring performance on vocals. This doesn't have as much substance as a lot of the tracks, but there is still the odd charming lyric which leaches out to save the track. The chorus in particular becomes more charming as we go along. 'The Ladder', meanwhile, is a less confident number on which to finish. The chorus is good on this one as well, but on the verses the kooky backing vocals quickly become annoying. What's more, there is not enough of a proper melody to back this up, and so in the final third Cole resorts to some 1980s drums and throaty straining to keep us interested.

If singer-songwriters have gained a reputation for being anodyne and banal, Harbinger is a lingering reminder that the genre can still cough up blood and guts from time to time. It's not an easy record to listen to, whether in one go or in bits. And that's because at its core, this is a deeply personal record, a document of one woman struggling in the modern world, brought about in many weird and tantalising ways. It is a catalogue of calamity, the pouring out of one's heart in situations which inflict pain, anguish and suffering to breaking point. It pulls no punches and makes no excuses for its more oblique moments. This will not flatter you with easy metaphors; it will shock you and scare you, and in doing so make you feel good to be alive. Subsquent Cole efforts were more well-presented and together, and as a result more successful. But for raw quality and sheer heartache, this is definitely the place to be.

4.00 out of 5

¹ Kelvin Hayes, 'Harbinger', Accessed on October 2 2008.