By Steve Weinstein
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Nick Cave looks a little embarrassed. He's onstage at the Plug Independent Music Awards, held early last month at Terminal 5, holding an obeliskoid statuette that host Patton Oswalt has just likened to a butt plug. "Thanks a lot," Cave says weakly, before hurrying off to prepare for a headlining set with his longtime band, the Bad Seeds. It's an awkward honor for someone who told MTV, "No, thanks," when nominated for a Video Music Award in 1996, and who called his induction into the Australian Recording Industry Association's Hall of Fame last year "fucking tedious." It's also an incongruous booking for an event geared to fans of fresh-faced acts like St. Vincent, White Denim, and Dizzee Rascal.
"To be honest, I wondered what the fuck we were doing there," Cave, 50, says the next day at his midtown hotel. "I don't want to be ungrateful, but I've never been concerned with independent music being more 'worthy' than mainstream music, whatever kind of inverted snobbery that is." Dressed in his signature slim black suit, Cave explains, between spoonfuls of chicken soup, that he accepted the Impact Award for his career arc at the urging of Anti-Records. In the run-up to the release of the Bad Seeds' 14th album, Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!, his label figured it couldn't hurt to remind a select group of American music appreciators that Cave is a veteran of alternative sounds.
If it were all up to him, Cave would sooner be reviled than lauded. His previous appearance in the States had done much more to tickle his nostalgia for that old fuck-you feeling. Opening for the White Stripes at Madison Square Garden last summer as Grinderman (a skuzzier, pared-down version of the Bad Seeds), Cave faced an arena full of people who had no idea who he was, and who were eager for him to get it over with so their favorite band could go on. "It reminded me of the way things used to be," he recalls. "I thought we might be booed off the stage by 20,000 people, and that was really exciting."
Cave loves discomfort. Always has. His career was born out of the ashes of punk in the late '70s, when the feedback-fueled shrieking he did with the Birthday Party launched the restless Aussie onto the international stage. Since that band crumbled in 1983, he's thrown curveballs at his cult of fans via the Bad Seeds, vacillating from dark, churchy dirges to sensitive singer-songwriter confessionals, retaining a towering level of drama throughout. "When a person listens to a new Bad Seeds record, they have to work out all over again whether they like the band," he says. "I'm really happy about that."
Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! should prove an exhilarating listen for most fans of Cave's oeuvre. It has a lot of the rawness and jagged edges of a classic Bad Seeds album, hopped up with off-kilter beats and loads of loops contributed by violinist Warren Ellis, an extension of his work on the soundtrack for Cave's 2005 film, The Proposition. Lazarus's title track, which leads off the record, sounds like a raved-up dance party thrown in a special urban hell. Cave's half-rapped verses tell the story of his central character, Larry, plucked from the New Testament and dropped into 1970s America as a fallen star with a dope problem. (Biblical references are like an addiction for Cave, a temptation he can't seem to resist: "I try to barricade the doors to that sort of stuff, but it just leaks in.")
Elsewhere, men prepare for suicide, love goes unrequited, and innocent women draw murderous male attention—but Cave doesn't want to talk about any of that right now. Too easy. He'd rather be asked about things that make him feel vulnerable, like why he does that lanky, hippie-like dance onstage. "I'm glad that came up," he says, "because I'd much rather talk about dancing than religion."
As much as he loves being on the receiving end of criticism and provocation, Cave doesn't mind returning the favor. At the Plug Awards, he spends much of the Bad Seeds' set at the edge of the stage, spitting lyrics at a select few people in the front row, a technique he uses often in concert. "There's usually some poor guy up at the front who I'm venting a lot of anger toward," he explains. "I let him represent all that I'm railing against." During fan favorite "Red Right Hand," Cave stretches swanlike into the crowd, shoving the tip of his finger in the face of a portly white man wearing glasses and sweating. "He's a ghost/He's a god/He's a man/He's a guru!" Cave sneers. The man raises his arms submissively, closes his eyes, and shudders through the moment. It's fuck you as salvation.