ESSAY BY JIM SCLAVUNOS

No More Shall We Part — Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds’ 11th studio album — was the first manifestation of new material by the band in over four years following the release of 1997’s The Boatman’s Call. Although they were active musically throughout that interval (touring extensively on the back of the aforementioned and 1998’s The Best Of Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds), for the time being, songwriting was on hiatus.

“I think I hit a brick wall,” explains Cave. “I fell into some kind of creative slump. I wasn’t blocked; I still had ideas. I was just a little bit disgusted by the whole thing. That seemed to go on and on and on after The Boatman’s Call. I just didn’t really want to write anything. I’d sit at the piano for 10 minutes, then get up and do something else.”

When his slump finally subsided, Cave resumed writing songs with a vengeance. All of the material for No More Shall We Part was put together in an office he had set up near his West London home, fitted out with just a computer and an antique Steinway piano. “I found that if I wanted to continue what I was doing, I had to pretty much turn up each day and work at it,” he insists. “The way that I used to write songs, which was just write down a line here, a line there, wasn’t working for me anymore. I had to really apply myself and do it like a job.”

The upshot of this newfound stricter work ethic was that Cave entered into the sessions for No More Shall We Part with a complete album’s worth of songs that were more thoroughly thought out, with lyrics all sorted. This was a marked change from how he had operated in the past, when he’d start off making an album with only a few songs and rough ideas to present to the band, and “hope for the best” that something of substance would ensue.

Another by-product of Cave’s rigorous solitary working method was that he had become much more proficient on the piano, to the degree that he worked out facsimile arrangement ideas that he was capable of playing on his own. “I arranged the whole thing before I went in,” Nick acknowledges, “which inhibits the band: if something’s already complete and all they have to do is play the parts, it doesn’t give them much breathing space.”

Mick Harvey notes that, perhaps underestimated by people outside the band, the sound and character of Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds albums are usually and historically very much down to a collective effort. “I don’t think people realise how deeply involved and important to the sound of the whole thing the band was… And still is.”

Recorded entirely in London at Abbey Road and Westside Studios (where it was also mixed), No More Shall We Part boasts the same line-up as The Boatman’s Call (augmented on some songs with a string section and/or backing vocals from Canadian folk music legends Kate and Anna McGarrigle). Nick’s pre-written arrangements notwithstanding, The Bad Seeds overall are considerably less constrained than on The Boatman’s Call. The instrumental sections featured on many of the tracks are denser and painstakingly dynamic, with a slow-burning intensity and prolonged delicately balanced tension.

“We deliberately recorded the songs very quickly before we really knew them well,” Nick recounts, “so that the performances had a fragile sense of unknowing about them, rather than that laboured feeling songs get when you’ve practiced them too much.”

While no less introspective than The Boatman’s Call, No More Shall We Part does leave confessional mode behind, substituting instead rich imagery invoking the sublime, the mundane and the surreally ridiculous in equal measure. The autobiographical component of the lyrics is pronounced throughout the album, and Cave’s wife, Susie Bick, whom he married in the period between the studio albums, figures prominently.

“As I Sat Sadly By Her Side”, for example, uses the device of a moral philosophic dialogue between an unspecified man and woman. Looking out a window together, they compare the nature of worlds both internal and external. “She’s saying everything is wonderful and beautiful,” explains Cave, “and I retort with the other side of the story about humanity. In the third verse she admonishes me for being such a miserable old bastard.” Although there is nothing in the song that in fact states it is the singer and his spouse, it would be easy enough for fan and critic alike to make that leap, especially as the cult of personality surrounding Nick Cave has enlarged to encompass his family.

“Susie’s very astute musically, way more musical than I am,“ demurs Cave. As the album progressed, he discussed it openly with her, welcoming her opinions, in the end concluding that she was happy with the songs written about or inspired by her. “I think she fares very well on the record,” he points out. “A lot better than some of my past relationships have.”

Cave’s attitude towards getting hitched and settling down as expressed on the album is a mixed bag and difficult to sum up. This is plainly evident in the title track wherein the joyous state of matrimony outlined in the text is belied by the minor key anguish of its piano accompaniment. The gentle melancholic sway of “The Sorrowful Wife” suddenly erupting in furiously thrashing full band assault; “Sweetheart Come” contrasting threats of violence and dark hints of shame and abuse in the verse with a tenderly swelling ecstatic chorus; “Hallelujah” with its futile tale of escape and grateful return to impotent captivity, interspersed with choruses of exultant praise – these all bespeak in words and music a complex admixture of bliss and discontent, faith and doubt, cynicism and earnest entreaty.

Critical reception to No More Shall We Part was across-the-board unmitigated praise, and Cave was man of the hour in the broadsheet press. Overall No More Shall We Part improved on chart positions set by The Boatman’s Call, peaking at #4 in Australia, #8 in Germany and #15 in the UK.

James Sclavunos