There's an indiscernible line, as critic Leslie Fielder once wrote, over which an archetype can slip to become a stereotype. One of art's main jobs is to keep pulling such figures back into relevance. Consider the manly man, a character constantly resurrected with a new mustache and set of weapons. In films and television, superheroes, criminals and sheriffs perpetually stalk each other across imagined wastelands, creating order, unraveling it, building it back again. Advertising loves machismo too -- tight abs in Abercrombie.
Rock 'n' roll is no country for these warriors, though; it favors androgyny. This may seem odd, since it's a male enclave -- count the women hard rockers on your fingers. But remember, Shakespeare's heroines hid their manhood beneath skirts. Rock frees men from hardness and stoicism; it teaches them to flower.
Florid machismo has its problems, though. It can easily become a cartoon -- the Incredible Hulk. On top of this, rock's biggest stars have been white artists pursuing a black muse via rhythm and blues. The racism that equates blackness with primitive virility makes minstrelsy hard to avoid.
Jim Morrison was the great role model, but his excesses reduced him to slobber. Bruce Springsteen spent years struggling to relax after he shoved himself into his All-American Levi's. Hard-core punks beat each other up to prove they weren't in love with each other.
Then there's Nick Cave, a shock-haired Australian who dresses like a gumshoe cowboy and processes references to Homer and female body parts through the filter of the Delta swamp. This dandy bewitched by violence is the unlikely master of macho rock. With a baritone made for battle cries, Cave has long courted extremes -- including self-parody -- to unravel masculinity from the inside out.
Thirty years after he first howled "I am the king . . . junkyard king!" as frontman for goth dissemblers the Birthday Party, Cave's vision is stronger than ever. Following the modernist blues of last year's Grinderman side project, Cave returns in April with "Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!," the 14th album from his cosmopolitan band the Bad Seeds. It's profound, it's sometimes obscene, and it's unlikely to have a rival for best rock album of the year.
Cave's youth was characterized by cathartic tirades thrown over beds of noise. His middle period found him meandering into piano balladry and lazy romantic platitudes. But in his 40s Cave started sharpening up. He's realized he is not some lone Jeremiah, and "Lazarus" asserts his place as part of rock's major canon.
The title track opens the set and immediately lays down its terms. Yes, Cave turns to the Bible for the millionth time, invoking the Gospel of John's second-most-famous resurrected dude. But instead of sticking with some grim, ancient landscape, the song places this Larry in 1970s New York, where he encounters decadence and a bouncy Velvet Underground beat.
The 1970s rock references continue on the next track, "Today's Lesson," a bass and Farfisa-driven speedball that blends Velvets lifts with a hook from the Stooges' "Real Cool Time" and some shadowy echoes of the Ramones and X. Later comes "Jesus of the Moon," Cave's latest nod to Leonard Cohen, and "More News From Nowhere," a game of expanding allusions that truly deserves to be called Dylanesque.
These songs explore the ground Cave has obsessively covered for decades -- old gods in the modern world, the barbarism of sex, the beauty of failed love. But his lyrics have never been more precise, more carefully salted with humor and compassion for perpetrators and victims alike. Instead of abandoning himself within his brutal characters, Cave stays awake.
It helps that the eight members of the Bad Seeds grasp his goals. Most have played with Cave for a decade or two, following his lead through cocktail-lounge serenades, surrealist dirges and fractured Americana. The relatively tight songs on "Lazarus" let them prove their strengths without fuss.
Cave and the Bad Seeds prove that age only helps in the pursuit of manliness. He's always seemed older; in fact, rock's obsession with youth, and especially indie's love affair with waif-ish tenor boys, may be one reason few have emulated him. Coincidentally, though, the release of "Lazarus" is paralleled by two other releases by artists who follow Cave's lead and end up succeeding on other terms.