Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, No More Shall We Part (WEA/Warner Bros): Nick Cave returns after a four-year silence, during which rumors regarding his already mythological existence were rife: according to who you listened to, he was either hooked on smack again, happily married with kids, or some combination thereof. No More Shall We Part, however, provides no easy answers to any of those propositions. A work superior in almost every way to the previous Bad Seeds release, the only-partially realized, Leonard Cohen-inspired The Boatman's Call, Cave's latest finds the singer in perhaps the finest voice of his career, armed with a set of melodic ballads and mid-tempo rockers which exemplify his dedicated, traditionalist's approach to the songwriter's craft. And yes, Cave may indeed now be married with children, but don't expect to find any fat and lazy, "Tupelo Honey"-type proclamations about the joys of domesticated life here. On the surging, piano-led ballad "Oh My Lord," for instance, Cave's imagery takes on an increasingly hallucinatory tone, as he envisions the "Sword of Damocles" hanging over his wife's head, and panics over criticism that he's gone soft and lost the plot entirely. Images of drug addiction, meanwhile, pervade the mid-tempo rocker "15 Feet of Pure White Snow," in which the singer describes a dead-end domestic scenario and "the worst day I've ever had"; like the somber "Hallelujah" (not the Cohen tune, but an original), violin-laden courtesy of the Dirty Three's Warren Ellis, "15 Feet" also features recurring images of nurses and doctors. While the prevalence of religious-sounding song titles here might suggest that Cave has undergone some kind of conversion, a closer listen reveals a profound ambivalence even in this area: "God Is in the House," for instance, while it pokes fun at modern urban society and its politically correct foibles, also ultimately suggests, Samuel Beckett-like, that the God the country people fervently await in their tiny chapel may not be there at all. And in the gentle "Gates to the Garden," Cave uses a John Donne-like sexual metaphor to suggest that religious ecstasy and sexual ecstasy might indeed be one and same thing. Overall, now as ever, No More Shall We Part — as emotionally intense a recording as anything he's ever released — proves that there are still no easy answers in the world of Nick Cave. As he screams at the conclusion of "15 Feet of Pure White Snow": "Save yourself — Help yourself!" — Johnny Walker (Black)

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