Nick Cave, an Australian who lives in London and Berlin, is yet another rock & roll bad boy. But he’s a cult figure too complex, perhaps, to sign with a major label, and also a rock & roll intellectual: His first novel, now available in England, will be published here this fall by Harper & Row. His vision isn’t self-indulgent, in classic rock bad-boy style. Instead it’s scary and dark.

Here he is in ”Foi Nagruz,” the opening song from his new album (his seventh), outlining the recipe for a relationship: ”A little love, a little hate, babe; a little trickery and deceit.” As he sings those words, his voice shambles from regretful ten-derness toward something like a despairing sneer.

But it’s in the title song of the album, which comes next, that you feel the full strength of his rage. The ”good son,” Cave forebodingly sings, ”wor- ships his brother, and he worships his mother, but it’s his father he feels is an unfair man.” Each verse builds to a shrill climax of fury. ”He curses his mother and he curses his father and he curses his virtues like an unclean thing!” Just when the music seems ready to destroy itself with fury, it dissolves into compassionate, almost sentimental strings. ”The good son,” Cave repeats, over and over. You can see him shaking his head with something approaching sorrow.

The song is like a biblical parable, twisted into a negative version of itself in which good turns into evil. But then there’s a second twist. A chorus interjects sardonic commentary, singing ”Another man down!” as if the good son were just another disposable victim, thus mocking his fury and his pain.

If every cut on the album were this powerful and devious, no grade could be high enough. Too often, though, things slide into a musical puddle that a colleague labeled ”alternative dirge-rock.” It’s as if rage, sighs, and mockery were spokes of a wheel on which Cave is imprisoned. He turns round and round, but can’t escape. By all means buy this album, if only to hear a few songs that aren’t like anything Cave — or anyone else — has ever done. Just don’t expect to like all of it.

The Good Son
  • Music