I really love discovering the unfamiliar within what I thought I was familiar with. I’m reminded of a really brilliant nugget of philosophical wisdom from Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums; when you reach the top of the mountain, keep climbing. How great is that! There is so much to take from that simple idea. For me, it represents a motivation to keep discovering and to never be satisfied with the status quo. Will the journey end? Who knows? But, look at all the great stuff we found along the way. Those things are the treasure that comes from peeling off life’s unending layers.
Nick Cave is an artist with whom I’m hardly aware. I know a few of his songs. Mostly because they were in the background of a movie I was watching (“Red Right Hand” in Dumb & Dumber, “Into My Arms” in About Time). Hell. I even went to see his documentary 20,000 Days on Earth. Though I could count all the Nick Cave songs I knew on one hand, I was drawn to his mythos on the screen. During an interview, he was asked what he fears the most. Reflecting deeply and quietly for a moment, Cave confessed that his biggest fear was losing his memory because that is what makes up ourselves; our experiences, loved one, beliefs, and the other riches of a life well lived. I think that fear ties very well with the mantra to keep climbing even when we reach the top of the mountain.
This week during one of my volunteer sessions in the media archive at a local folk music school, my archive partner put on Cave’s 2008 album Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! From the first few beats of the album’s titular opening track, I was hooked. From little I experienced of Cave, I had already drawn a conclusion as to who he was. I packaged his entire sound into a box and labeled it. But this album changed that. This wasn’t the Nick Cave I knew. Correction. This wasn’t the Nick Cave I thought I knew. I continued to be drawn in as I continued to dig deeper layer by layer.
There are a lot of great tracks on this album including “More News from Nowhere” and “We Call Upon the Author,” both which dabble between the extremes of blues train rhythms and methodical contemplation of sonic themes. But I want to focus on the opening track “Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!” Released on the ANTI- record label (home of Tom Waits for the last two decades), Cave kicks off the record by cutting to the chase. The song features a powerful blues-driven track with meandering, nearly spoken-word vocals. The rhythm guitar is laid on thick and chugs through the song with an organ tinge following suit in the background. The band comes together with a garage-rock appeal that calls back to L.A. blues rock of the 1960s. Even the Bad Seeds have a bit of fun using their own vocals as instruments with a poppy yet brutish chorus. The chanting “dig yourself, Lazarus dig yourself” repeated throughout is bouncy with the intoxicating aroma of smoke and alcohol and is followed with a husky command from Cave to Lazarus filtered through a distorted megaphone a la Tom Waits. “I want you to dig!” sounds commanding but also like a philosophical proclamation to not stop. Keep going! When you get to the bottom, keep digging!
Lyrically, there is a lot of tongue in cheek humor offered by Cave. The story of the biblical figure of Lazarus is played out like a stoned existential journey. There’s a mental disconnect between where Lazarus is and how he feels. He’s going through a seemingly out-of-body experience and everything around him in unexplainable, unreachable, and untouchable. Perhaps he is dead. Or perhaps he has lost his mental clarity and his memory. Perhaps this is the story of Cave acting out his biggest fear. Is this particular story of Lazarus really the story of Cave losing his mind? Could the something that is going on upstairs be result of something becoming nothing?
The whole album is a treat that remains fairly consistent. It is incredibly rich with a stylistic theme that is maddening and fun. Cave is someone I want to explore further. I enjoyed what I had heard before this week, but this gave me something to explore even further. Though, I don’t think I would’ve put this album on if I was on my own. Life is full of little surprises.