Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds

“Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!” (Mute) - 5 stars

The three years between the Bad Seeds’ binary goliath—2003’s “Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus”—and their latest installment—“Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!”—have been a period of transition for Aussie frontman Nick Cave. In the interim, Cave composed two soundtracks alongside perpetual collaborator and Bad Seed Warren Ellis, and his side project, Grinderman, recorded their eponymous debut in 2007. An album of visceral, uncouth guitar-thunder, “Grinderman” eschewed the theatrical balladry of typical Seeds fare, garnering critical praise and exposing conventional hard-rock fans to one of the underground’s elder statesmen. Cave hinted that the Seeds’ next release would channel an adventurous, Grinderman-esque aesthetic, emphasizing guitar noise in defiance of his more piano-oriented past. Fortunately, the gamble pays off in dividends, and “Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!” stands as the mark of an explosive and brilliant new incarnation of the Bad Seeds.

The title track opens the album, plunging forward with a grating guitar crunch and the dull moan of church organs. The Bad Seeds chant the chorus like oarsmen on a Viking ship: “Dig yourself / Laz’rus, dig yourself / Back in that hole.” In sarcastic spoken-word, Cave recounts the mournful wanderings of post-tomb Lazarus, whose brief encounter with fame in modern America ends “back on the streets in New York City / In a soup queue / A dope fiend / A slave / Then prison / Then the madhouse / Then the grave.” It’s a fitting end for any character in a Bad Seeds song, but Cave spouts this particular sermon with the vigor of a revivalist preacher. “I can hear chants and incantations and some guy’s mentioning me in his prayers / Well, I don’t know what it is but there’s definitely something going on upstairs,” he sings. Cave laughs at the euphemism for a sympathetic God, while simultaneously alluding to Lazarus’—or even his own—insanity.

The undeniable power of the first song would have been enough to justify the Seeds’ dramatic shift in sound, but the album brandishes ten more tracks burning on the same brand of fuel. “Today’s Lesson,” a road-trip rocker, surges along on a foreboding bass riff while Cave croons about lust and violence jumping from dreams to the waking world. “Night of the Lotus Eaters” perverts the myth of a Mediterranean cult of hallucinogen-gorging island dwellers, casting them as post-apocalyptic street hunters; tension winds tight against a sparse arrangement of drum clatter, guitar reverb, and a xylophone that seems to echo from the bottom of a sewer.

“We Call Upon the Author” begins a searing second act with a snarling Cave reciting a list of grievances against an ambivalent God. Yet again, the finger of blame points at Cave, who seems to bring down the song’s misery around himself (with bizarre imagery like “myxomatoid kids”); his wandering mind can’t quite convey his intended points (“Prolix! Prolix! / Nothing a pair of scissors can’t fix!”). The music built around this communicative breakdown is vaudevillian and full of overlong, hyperbolic verses that drop without warning into heaps of hissing chaos, only to begin again in spotty, amnesiac continuity.

The truly epic “More News from Nowhere” closes the album with recurring allusions to Homer’s “Odyssey.” Again, Cave’s weathered vocals take center stage, but the narrative fits firmly between the faint white-noise background and the soft guitar plucks. Ultimately, nihilism turns to exhausted agnosticism as Cave laments his own insignificance: “Don’t it make you feel alone? / Don’t it make you want to get right back home?” For Cave, at least, home is long gone, if it ever existed at all.

“Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!” is a triumph—quite possibly the band’s finest—a highly mature, surprisingly organic step in a promising new direction for an artist now in his fourth decade of music-making. Cave hasn’t broken away from the Bad Seeds’ traditions. On the contrary: the album sounds like a natural, albeit bold, progression from the supercharged “Abattoir Blues.” But it took an injection of sludge from the Grinderman project to catalyze the appropriate reaction. It’s more than divine intervention on Cave’s part—the Bad Seeds have simply evolved.

—Reviewer Ryan J. Meehan can be reached at