I've often wondered who really buys Nick Cave records. I don't mean this as an affront to Cave's fans -- and obviously there are a lot of them, or Cave wouldn't be on a major label. I simply can't envision many situations in which anyone would say "Hey, let's listen to some Nick Cave!" No More Shall We Part is a beautiful, elegant record, capably fulfilling the promise of The Boatman's Call, but it exacts a harrowing toll from the listener. This is not a record to which you can listen lightly; if used as background music it will gradually darken your mood, like poison seeping slowly into a well.
This is Cave's first album since turning forty, and he's showing his age -- in a good way. Bitterness and sarcasm have given way to world-weary acceptance and a sincere desire for understanding. The relationship between an artist and his broken heart is a complex ballet of give-and-take, and Cave shows his mastery of it here. This is a man who no longer needs to turn every doomed romance into a murder ballad, whose stories no longer dovetail predictably into Southern Gothic violence and whose indifference toward God and Christianity has been supplanted by a comfortable awareness of his own spirituality. Clearly more at ease with faith than he's ever been before -- and seemingly having realized that the concepts of God and Christ are valid and admirable, their perceived failings in fact attributable to fallible Christians -- Cave seems satisfied to skewer human hypocrisy with jet-black irony, as in the chilling "God is in the House". Naturally, the remission of Cave's religious ambivalence gives an entirely different feel to his most gospel-tinged moments -- without ironic barbs, their soul-searching rings true in a way it never did before. Losses are felt more acutely and deliverance is more sincerely sought. Like a film director abandoning special effects in favor of dialogue, Cave finds emotional resonance in tiny, unique details, painting rich and engrossing pictures in a thousand shades of sadness. He plays light against dark in surprising ways, noticing the brightest flowers at his lowest moments and indulging an apparent fascination with kittens as symbols of goodness.
Vocally, Cave has never been better. Blending the swank sophistication of Bryan Ferry with the realistic narrative skill of Randy Newman and the confessional peaks of Cohen and Walker, he captivates with every word; it's easy to picture him poised languidly in front of a piano, ever-present cigarette drooping from his fingers. He croons silkily on "As I Sat Sadly By Her Side," unleashes an impassioned plea for forgiveness on "Oh My Lord" and reaches the height of elegant moodiness on "The Sorrowful Wife". For the final moments of "God is in the House", he slows to a wrenching a capella whisper-sing; the song's success depends upon playing its final, ironic twist utterly straight, and Cave pulls it off wonderfully, reinforcing the dual meaning of the title without ever acknowledging it. Whenever you think you've seen the bottom of his bag of vocal tricks, he pulls out something new.
The music, too, is stunning. Lushly orchestrated strings, pristine piano, subtle guitar work and sweetly gorgeous backing vocals (courtesy of the McGarrigle sisters, I believe) are the order of the day. Above and beyond the stellar music are moments of absolutely transcendent beauty. The teary-eyed "Love Letter" might well send chills down your spine for its entire four minutes, but Warren Ellis' violin, Cave's vocals and piano occasionally align to create moments of such unbridled, heart-stopping emotion that you'll be hard-pressed to keep your eyes dry. This is not rock and roll. Your local record shop will file it in the Rock section, yes, but it's something far more complex. Elements of rock creep in on "As I Sat Sadly By Her Side" and flare aggressively on "The Sorrowful Wife", among others, but No More Shall We Part grandly and gleefully defies categorization, as it should.
A gloomy record? Yes. A beautiful record? Yes. A record to listen to when you're alone, sitting in a dark, old house, sipping gin and mourning lost love? That's your choice. After a day spent listening to No More Shall We Part, I'm suffused with a quiet, modest satisfaction, for I've shared a piece of deeply personal, lovingly crafted art. And so I return to my initial question: Who buys Nick Cave records? In the case of No More Shall We Part, the answer is simple, really. You do...if you're smart.