Forgotten series: Nick Cave – No More Shall We Part (2001)

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Photo by Kim Erlandsen

by Tom Johnson

First impressions . . . you know what they say about that. They’re always right. Unless they’re not. In the case of Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds’ No More Shall We Part, they were decidedly wrong.

The first time I heard No More Shall We Part, it was shortly after discovering Cave via 2003’s Nocturama. Aside from an excruciatingly repetitive closing track (“Baby I’m On Fire” — fifteen minutes; seriously, read these lyrics: the whole thing consists of “the ______ says it/baby I’m on fire” with no extended instrumental break), em>Nocturama was solid and enjoyable, and the haunting melancholy he’s known for went full circle to become beautiful instead of depressing.

After I’d lived with the album for a while and thoroughly decided I really liked it, I found a number of Cave-fan reviews disparaging my newfound joy. Apparently, it was a bit of a departure for the group, and, as such, a letdown compared to his previous releases. I could understand some of the points these fans made in their reviews — some of the songs try a bit to hard to “rock” when being creepy and dark is really what works best for Nick Cave. Overall, however, the album still managed to please even picky me; that has to say something.

I vowed to pick up any of Cave’s more recent albums (No More Shall We Part, The Boatman’s Call, etc.) when I saw them used, as these were the ones garnering rave reviews on All Music Guide. AMG gave Nocturama 2.5 stars — a pretty bad rating. As they say, “Everything is predictable and sounds like something Cave has done before.” Maybe so, but it was new to me. Somehow, contradictory to how I felt about it, “Baby I’m On Fire” was getting the most attention, being held up as “intense” instead of how I saw it — boring. I feared that what Cave fans saw in Nick Cave that they enjoyed would be the very things I couldn’t stand based on these observations.

Finally, a used copy of No More Shall We Part came along and I grabbed it. I immediately gave it a spin and found that I really … didn’t … like it. At all. Everything about it was too morose, too down. It was everything that I’d liked about Nocturama but overdone by a factor of 10. I could have probably felt average about the album, but the thing that really went too far was the excessive use of female vocals where they simply do not belong. It was during the last couple of minutes of “Hallelujah” (not the wonderful Leonard Cohen song everyone covers) when Kate & Anna McGarrigle begin their contribution to the album — two minutes of their soft, church-singing (read: not gospel) style repeating “hallelujah” and some lyrics. It was too much, too much. When I say “female voices where they do not belong” I mean they don’t belong on this album, at all, anywhere. This is one of those touches that has to be done deftly, and it just wasn’t done so on this album. It’s heavyhanded, trying to push the point that Cave’s “got religion” a bit too far.

And I do “get it” about Nick Cave: His songs are melodramatic; his flat, yet soulful baritone voice is melodramatic; the subject matter is, well, not really melodramatic but simply dramatic. I get it, and I get that Cave had found God in the last number of years. What I’m trying to say is, this album didn’t need Kate and Anna’s amateurish vocals to make the point. The lyrics and song titles make that plainly obvious. Anything more is just hitting us over the head. Cave wants us to think of Sundays with God under the steeple, and he just can’t let the lyrics and music take care of that. And it ruined the album for me.

I put it back on the shelf and let it sit. I refused to trade it in, hoping I’d be wrong about the album in time. And I tried, from time to time, and nothing really clicked.

Then, I pulled it out for the first time in a couple months, thinking that it had sat long enough, and if I still felt the same way about it I did the first time, then it was time for it to clear space on my shelf for other things I did care about. So in it went into the CD player. And boy, was I wrong. Very wrong. Not wrong, however, about Kate & Anna’s vocals — I will never be wrong about that, I’m sure. But the music sucked me in, the melancholic darkness involved me. Suddenly, I could overlook the aspects I’d found irritating. In fact, they were much easier to ignore than the first time through. Plainly said, I really enjoyed No More Shall We Part long after I’d bought it.

First impressions are simply unfair. I know this, having listened to an innumerable amount of CDs since I was about 15 (numbering into the five digits — that’s as close as I can figure) that music doesn’t always reveal itself on first listen. If anything, I’ve come to know that more often than not, what pleases on first listen winds up being the album I don’t listen to after a few spins. What that says to me is that the music is just “too easy.” I listen to music not only because it entertains me but because it challenges me.

The music that’s stayed in my collection for 15 years (which is very, very little) has done so because I have continually found something intriguing to return to, something undefinable in many cases. I can tell immediately when something is not going to have lasting power with me because it just hits my ear a certain way. Top-40 type music, dance music, anything really popular (or trying to be) is like this — it’s just easy on the ears, lacks any amount of depth, and is intended to really just be ear-pleasing filler, not long-lasting entertainment. In fact, a rule I’ve developed over the years is the Rule of 5: five times through any album and you will find how you truly feel about it. And more often than not, the “easy” albums that immediately clicked have grown boring while the “difficult” albums have either failed to ignite a spark or have found a permanent space in my collection.

The Rule of 5: Will your music collection stand up to it?

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