A child cries, but an adult weeps.
It’s the type of seemingly innocuous—yet crucial—distinction that Nick Cave consistently makes in his music, in his careful choice of words. The lean, raven-haired, London-based, Australian-born singer took the stage Sunday at Metro and made clear that there are two types of love songs: The ones the rest of the world writes, and the ones Cave inhabits.
Backed by what is surely one of the great rock bands of the last 15 years, the Bad Seeds, Cave has expanded the sonic and lyrical terrain pioneered by his early ’80s band, the Birthday Party. Now his musical horizon stretches from Birthday Party-like mayhem to a creepy brand of lounge crooning, at once beautiful and disturbing, delivered with unrivaled intensity.
Like a prototype for Robert Duvall’s preacher in “The Apostle,” Cave stalked the stage with an evangelist’s zeal, lacking only a Bible as he bellowed into the microphone with a Bela Lugosi baritone, his left arm reaching out to the crowd with palm raised as though extending some form of tainted blessing. He sang of “a beauty impossible to endure,” of love that descends like some Old Testament plague: “Well, darling, you’re the punishment for all my former sins.” Cave desperately wants to “let love in,” as one of his songs declares, but there’s always a fuss: an argument, a burst of violence and, before you know it, a body on the floor.
The seven-piece Bad Seeds shared an addiction to cigarettes and to the primal building blocks of rock ‘n’ roll—rockabilly, blues, country—whether playing with hushed delicacy or wall-of-sound dissonance. Mick Harvey contributed spooky counter-melodies on keyboard. Warren Ellis, on loan from the Dirty Three, spun elaborate, gypsy melodies on his violin, while the sartorially magnificent Blixa Bargeld stood in the shadows beneath his wide-brimmed mariachi hat and coaxed gothic atmosphere from his guitar. They suggested Them’s “Here Comes the Night” on the soulful melancholy of “Nobody’s Baby Now,” Glenn Branca’s violent symphonic density on “The Mercy Seat,” a burned-out Holiday Inn trio down to their last quarter-pack of smokes on “Into My Arms.”
In revisiting Bad Seeds terrain from the mid-’80s, Cave squirmed like a straitjacketed prisoner on “Tupelo,” a worthy homage to the predomesticated Elvis Presley.
The dramatic potential of the quieter, more recent material was also fully exploited. On “Where the Wild Roses Grow,” Cave played murderous lecher to Bargeld’s virginal victim in a homoerotic duet. The singer presented the guitarist with a flower, crooned, “All beauty must die,” and then they kissed.
In Cave’s world, love is never innocent.