A couple of weeks ago I watched a new documentary about the creation of the Doors’ first album. Almost immediately after that, I dove into the new Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds album. It proved to be an interesting juxtaposition. On first listen, it seemed to me that Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!! (Anti-) was very much an update on the Doors’ sound. Maybe it was a hangover from the documentary, but then again, the instrumentation is much the same: crooning vocalist, organ (often a Manzarek-like Vox organ, at that), fuzzed-up guitar, drums, and bass. The lyrics are literary, harrowing, funny, and as deeply felt as some of Jim Morrison’s more extreme excursions to other worlds. I thought I immediately understood what this was. (Check out “Moonland” for the Morrison connection I’m talking about.)

I took a couple days off, and then I listened again. And again. Subsequent listens revealed that Cave employed a much broader palette in creating Dig!!! Yes, the Doors’ influence is very much there, but there’s more. Iggy Pop turns out to be nearly as big a factor as Morrison; Bowie is there too, as is Leonard Cohen. It sounds odd then to say that this is a wholly original album, but the fact is that there’s nothing around that sounds like the music the Bad Seeds are making here, and there are certainly precious few lyricists who can drop the kind of references that Cave does.

I’ll admit that I don’t like having to work too hard when it comes to listening to rock and roll albums. After all, doesn’t one of the best definitions of the form call it “three chords and a heartbeat”? Be assured that you can enjoy Dig!!! on a very basic level turn it up and embrace the weirdness. Or you can try to follow what Cave is going on about. I think I get about half of his references, but that’s more than enough for me to find this album quite striking. A perfectly good example of the literary nature of Cave’s name-dropping comes from the incendiary rant “We Call Upon the Author to Explain,” in which Cave the songwriter puts himself on trial and challenges God to explain himself, while at the same time creating a literary feud:

Bukowski was a jerk!
Berryman was the best!!!
He wrote like wet papier-mache
But he went the Heming way.
Weirdly on wings and with maximum pain
We call upon the author to explain.

When we last heard from Cave, he was releasing fierce energy in Grinderman, a Bad Seeds side project. Before that, he created the majestic double album Abbatoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus (2004). Clearly he’s an artist who feels the constant need to reinvent himself, and he isn’t too interested in retracing ground he’s already covered. It’s a rare and welcome gift.