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