The title No More Shall We Part may sound like a declaration of fidelity, an unshakeable commitment to a partner, but in truth the 11th studio album from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds is anything but a study in successful relationships. You'll find more examples of the five classic types of literary conflict on this 67-minute disc than in four years' worth of English lectures.
Man vs. Nature crops up in the vicious wind and rain of "Hallelujah," while our protagonist trudges through frozen streets and "deepening snow" in "Darker With the Day." Cave supplies a hefty dose of Man vs. the Supernatural via his constant appeals to the Almighty ("Oh, Lord, how have I offended thee?" he pleads in "Oh My Lord"), while the ruined romances of "The Sorrowful Wife" and the title track provide the requisite dose of Man vs. Man. And you couldn't wish for a keener example of Man vs. Society than "God Is in the House," a xenophobic celebration of white picket fences keeping out "drug freaks" and "homos roaming the streets in packs."
But Man vs. Self definitely wins out as the primary theme throughout No More Shall We Part. "Doctor, doctor, I'm going mad," Cave cries in "Fifteen Feet of Pure White Snow," an unnerving tale of cabin fever. In "Hallelujah," a wandering wretch in a nightshirt is redeemed by memories of his nurse and her ministrations of medication and hot cocoa. Even the flashes of happiness on No More the starlight stroll through "Sweetheart Come," the reconciliatory promise of "Love Letters" feel either delusional or doomed.
Musically, No More finds Cave and company returning to a slightly fuller sound than on the ensemble's last original effort, 1997's sparse The Boatman's Call. Cave's piano provides the foundation on most tracks, relegating the guitars of Mick Harvey and Blixa Bargeld to supporting roles, but string arrangements by Harvey and violinist Warren Ellis (Dirty Three) also figure prominently. In an interesting twist, backing vocals by maverick Canadian folkies Kate & Anna McGarrigle cast an angelic glow around Cave's more somber intonation.
But the biggest surprise here is Cave's singing. Forsaking the bluesy moans and wails of older works like The First Born Is Dead and Kicking Against the Pricks, he pushes his voice in new directions, sounding eerily like a young Bryan Ferry as he engages his upper register for "As I Sat Sadly by Her Side" and contorting his diction into a Dylan-esque sneer on "God Is in the House." Cave probably wouldn't have made the short list for Sinatra's Duets 3, but when most old-timers are quite content to rest on their laurels, it's especially refreshing to hear one 20-plus years into his career still exploring uncharted musical avenues.
Kurt B. Reighley