NICK CAVE comes from pretty far south -- Melbourne, Australia -- but that's not the south he's interested in. Since the disbanding of his squalling, precedent-busting death-punk outfit, the Birthday Party, Cave's been marinating himself in the lore of America's Deep South, elaborating on his Elvis obsession with doses of gospel, Delta blues and pre-rock balladeering while indulging a new-found Faulkner fixation.
These interests are expressed principally in the music Cave makes with his band, the Bad Seeds, but the singer/songwriter has also appeared in films, playing himself in "Wings of Desire" and a larger role in an Aussie prison flick, "Ghosts . . . of the Civil Dead," and contributing to the soundtracks of both films. Cave, who performs Sunday at Gaston Hall, also has published "King Ink," a collection of his lyrics and poetry and, most recently, a novel, "And the Ass Saw the Angel," which he will sign at Olsson's Books & Records Dupont Circle location at 1 Sunday afternoon.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
"The Good Son" (Mute/Enigma). The hero of Cave's novel remarks that "Ah am tired of the taste of saltwater," and sure enough everybody's bawling on "The Good Son," the singer's latest album. One of the most lachrymose sets of lyrics since the golden age of Leslie Gore, "Son" wrenches tears in five of its nine songs, including (logically enough) "The Weeping Song" and "Lament."
Musically, the latter title might apply to all these songs except "Foi Na Cruz," which has a mild Brazilian lilt (the album was recorded in Sao Paulo), and "The Witness Song," a rockabillied number that is the album's only upbeat track (though with stilted, "literary" couplets like "I took a walk down to the port/Where strangers meet and do consort"). Elsewhere, Cave offers the now-standard tributes to "A little love, a little hate, babe/A little trickery and deceit" in a deep, dark Jim Morrison-like croon that only accentuates the kinship between the title song (presumably derived from the Biblical tale of the prodigal son) and the Doors' Oedipal "The End."
Nick Cave, Mick Harvey and Blixa Bargeld
"Ghosts . . . of the Civil Dead" (Mute/Enigma). Though set in a prison in the Australian desert, "Ghosts" was inspired by the disgruntled reminiscences of David Hale, a former guard at the U.S. Penitentiary at Marion, Ill. Thus this collection of brief, ominous instrumental snippets by Cave and Bad Seeds Mick Harvey and Blixa Bargeld is regularly interrupted by the comments of Hale and others. It's the same approach that was used on the soundtrack album to "The Thin Blue Line," and just as it did there, it greatly decreases the likelihood that anyone will play this disc more than once. Since Cave and Co.'s musical contributions are even slighter than Philip Glass's to "Line," however, that's no great predicament.
"And the Ass Saw the Angel" (HarperCollins). By far the most problematic of Cave's recent projects, this novel is a howlingly overwrought backwoods bad-seed parable that makes such Faulknerian pastiches as Claude Simon's "The Flanders Road" seem restrained in comparison.
Narrated mostly by a mute (a tribute to Cave's British record company?) whose older twin brother died at birth (as did Elvis Presley's, inspiring the title of Cave's first solo album, "The First Born Is Dead"), it's rendered in a not-quite-convincing dialect that's King James Bible via "The Sound and the Fury" and "Absalom! Absalom!" (The title comes from the Old Testament account of Balaam and the Angel.) This tale of delusion and damnation among the inbred white-trash population of the fictional Ukolore Valley is set in a landscape of dirt, dung, death and -- just for good measure -- voracious leeches that's so degraded it's laughable.
That may be Cave's intention, but the demimonde he's created here is too bleak to summon any but the uneasiest of chuckles.