For many people, australia conjures up images of barbecues, Crocodile Dundee and Kylie Minogue. And then there's Nick Cave, whose very name calls to mind the devil and darkness. A pale, chain-smoking, pessimistic ex-junkie, Cave seems the very antithesis of the affable Aussie. He has spent the past 20 years and 10 albums in a tortured struggle with life, love, God and the extremes of the human condition. The songs he writes and sings with his band, the Bad Seeds, are typically fraught. Now, with his just-released 11th album, No More Shall We Part, a chink of light has touched his melancholy. European audiences are discovering it as Cave, 43, and the Bad Seeds tour the continent. (They'll wind up in Athens on July 2.)
Cave, who grew up in the country town of Warracknabeal, north of Melbourne, has had an ambivalent relationship with his homeland. At the end of the '70s he escaped with a band called the Birthday Party and headed for London. Falling into the post-punk void, the Birthday Party offered a heroin-fueled sound with lyrics that show there's nothing new about Eminem. One of their songs opened: "I stuck a six-inch gold blade in the head of a girl." Not a g'day kind of sound.
The Birthday Party moved to Berlin, where it imploded, and Cave moved on to form the Bad Seeds in 1983 with multi-instrumentalist Mick Harvey and guitarist Blixa Bargeld, the only members to remain throughout. Their earliest albums, From Her to Eternity and The First Born is Dead, introduce themes based on Southern mythology and the Bible, the Old Testament in particular, that recur throughout Cave's work (culminating in his 1990 novel, And the Ass Saw the Angel). Cave's characters are blighted, often violent outcasts whose fate is retribution. His song The Mercy Seat, from the 1988 album Tender Prey-recorded last year by one of his mentors, Johnny Cash-is written from the electric chair: "And the mercy seat is waiting/ And I think my head is burning/ And in a way I'm yearning/ To be done with all this measuring of truth/ An eye for eye/ And a tooth for a tooth."
Cave left Berlin at the end of the '80s for São Paulo, where his writing took a more personal, less metaphorical route. Before arriving at No More Shall We Part, Cave beat heroin, moved back to London and found modest commercial success. His 1996 album Murder Ballads featured collaborations with P.J. Harvey and, improbably, his pop princess compatriot Kylie Minogue.
In 1999, on the day of the eclipse, Cave moved from his houseboat on the Thames and married British ex-model Susie Bick, with whom he shares a terrace house in London. He leaves it every morning for an office where he writes from 9 to 5. The upshot of this domesticated and disciplined mode is No More Shall We Part, in which Cave almost shows a trust of love-without losing any of the trademark pain and yearning. In a lecture he once gave at the Vienna Poetry Festival-which is included in his Complete Lyrics (Penguin), to be published in Australasia in August-Cave argued: "The Love Song must be borne into the realm of the irrational, the absurd, the distracted, the melancholic, the obsessive and the insane, for the Love Song is the clamor for love itself, and love is, of course, a form of madness."
From anyone else, the title track of the new album could be taken as a romantic reflection on marriage. From Cave, it is menacing: "And no more shall we part/ The contracts are drawn up, the ring is locked upon the finger." Fortunately for his large legion of fans, Cave has managed in these moving ballads to maintain his muse-his demons-and to prove that maturity doesn't have to be mellow.