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ROCK / At last, a comfortable Cave: The daunting front-man of the Birthday Party has mellowed into a songwriter fully at home with himself. Ben Thompson met him

WHATEVER else Nick Cave does, he will always stand out in a crowd. I know this because I saw him in one once; bowling along Kensington High Street in an immaculate pin-striped suit, foreign-language students scattering to the left and right of him. With his high forehead, his hair swept back and his finely wrought legs tapering with the sturdy elegance of a Chippendale cabinet, Cave looked more like a character in a book than someone you might actually talk to.

This was just as it should have been, because Cave is a very literary songwriter. It's not just that he has published a work of fiction, And the Ass Saw the Angel, which gave new meaning to the term 'Gothic novel'. It's also the feel of his songs: many are crowded with characters who might have wandered in from an ante-room in the mind of William Faulkner. Cave is also a compelling, sometimes scary performer. The Birthday Party, the group with which he came to prominence after moving to Britain from his native Australia, was possibly the most frightening spectacle rock music has ever produced. With his next band, the Bad Seeds, Cave has lovingly explored the darker sides of the country, gospel and rock traditions which he once seemed about to destroy.

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' new album, Let Love In, is, amazingly, their ninth. It finds them not settled in a routine but breaking thrilling new ground. Cave's long-established flair for baroque imagery applies itself to a new set of personal concerns. The two-part 'Do You Love Me?', which frames eight other new songs, sets the intimate tone: 'Our love lines grew hopelessly tangled, and the bells from the chapel went jingle-jangle'. A Nick Cave scenario of old might have had him pursued by a big black crow in a bone carriage; now it's domestic demons he'll be running from.

Let Love In contains a couple of the brutal narratives for which Cave is widely celebrated, but there are also songs of such tender love and stately beauty that Leonard Cohen or Johnny Cash would be proud of them. The lovely 'Nobody's Baby Now' is the most unashamedly romantic song Cave has written. His mordant wit has rarely been more to the fore either. On the hilariously sepulchral 'Lay Me Low' he looks forward to his own demise: 'They'll interview my teachers / Who'll say I was one of God's sorrier creatures.'

When you first meet him, it is a surprise to find the Cave visage isn't perpetually twisted into one of those Neanderthal grimaces that tend to adorn his album covers. 'I have a face that lends itself to distortion,' he observes drily. He's not wearing a suit either - charcoal pin-striped trousers are set off by an uncharacteristically cuddly olive-green pullover, borrowed from his Brazilian wife, Viv. 'I normally dress in suits,' he says, 'because I feel comfortable in them. I'm not wearing one today because I wanted to create a homely impression.'

Homely is not a word one associates with Cave, who is renowned for his nomadic lifestyle: flitting between Sydney, Berlin and Sao Paulo, buying another copy of Bob Dylan's Nashville Skyline in every city he comes to. He now finds himself in the unaccustomed position of family man and taxpayer, living in a suburban house on the wrong side of London's Westway with his wife and their son Luke. His writing environment, in which this interview takes place, is an elegantly converted garden shed. There are tidy shelves, a small collection of Brazilian naive art, a Kylie Minogue flight-bag, pictures of Karen Carpenter and crime-writer James Ellroy, and, in pride of place behind the computer, a signed photo of Evel Knievel.

Has Cave's citizen-of-the-world lifestyle had a great effect on his music? 'Not in terms of picking up sounds from other cultures, but definitely in terms of my psychological state. I don't think it's any coincidence that a lot of the characters I write about tend to be very rootless - always moving into or out of situations.'

Will it be hard to put that rootlessness behind him? 'I've enjoyed never having to be a part of society. On the other hand there is a negative side to it, which is that I don't actually feel a part of anything. I don't want to get too melodramatic about it, but I do think that I have a relationship with the world that isn't exactly healthy.'

Few would argue with this. Cave's fondness for the old country-and-western tradition of the murder ballad has given plenty of people the creeps over the years. 'What I think tends to happen,' he observes, with unnerving honesty, 'is that the characters that I invent harbour certain resentments or emotions that I have, but they are fictional so they can take those resentments to their logical conclusion.

'If you're going to write songs about how you live on a day-to-day basis, it's much harder to make them interesting and vivid.' This is the new challenge to which Cave has risen spectacularly, turning his unsparing eye away from the grisly screenplays of his imagination and on to his own personal circumstances. Did he feel at any point that he might have gone too far? 'Thirsty Dog', for example, is a song with a vaguely comic premise - 'someone sitting in a bar, getting drunker and drunker and apologising for everything' - but a lacerating pay-off: 'I'm sorry that I'm always pissed / I'm sorry that I exist / And when I look into your eyes / I can see you're sorry too.'

'There's something a little bit awful about exploiting your relationships for a set of song lyrics,' Cave admits, 'but at the same time, they're all I've got to write about. It is sometimes difficult for my wife, who I actually have quite a wonderful relationship with, but I think she's secure enough in it that she just rolls her eyes.'

Some of Cave's lyrics - 'A life sentence sweeping confetti from the floor of a concrete hole', from 'I Let Love In', for one - might chill the atmosphere of the most well-adjusted of breakfast tables, but the passion with which they are howled and hollered can only be a compliment. And 'Nobody's Baby Now' is perhaps the first song Cave has written which is, as he puts it, 'just beautiful - there is no monster lurking in the background'.

It's as if it's taken all this time for Cave to break free of the Birthday Party's malign force-field. The potency of his new-found romanticism must date in some way to the group's psychosis. I only saw them play once but the memory of a vicious maelstrom of negative energy lingers, along with a mental snapshot of a formidable punk rocker stepping gingerly to one side of the stage-front melee and saying 'I'm not going in there, it's dangerous.'

I'd always wondered if the Birthday Party's savagery was fuelled by disappointment at Britain not living up to its expectations. 'Absolutely,' Cave remembers. 'We were the archetypal bored Australian teenagers with nothing to do but get drunk and take drugs and smash phone booths. We used to dream about what England would be like.

'Some of my friends used to buy the NME and look at what you could do on a Saturday night: 'Oh if we were in England we could go to see Echo and the Bunnymen or the Teardrop Explodes'. We came to England with all these grand expectations of the place and, as you can imagine, the reality of it was very different. We had no money and nowhere to live. It was the middle of winter and all those groups we wanted to see were actually shit anyway. We became very frustrated very quickly.'

As if that wasn't enough, they found themselves 'openly ridiculed for being Australian and attempting to make music as Australians'. Was that why they turned nasty? 'Very much so. We just hated England so much that the Birthday Party became an exercise in venting our frustrations . . . We had a licence to get up on stage and spit in the face of a country we loathed.'

It was that very fury that made the group unique. 'When we finally started to get acclaim, we really didn't know how to respond to it,' Cave recalls, 'so we just split up and formed the Bad Seeds. Once you've kicked a dog a certain number of times, you can't really turn around and start patting it.'

Cave's new dog may be less likely to bite your hand off, but it still won't bring you your slippers. 'I hope no one's waiting around for me to make a happy record,' he says, 'because I write best when I'm depressed and angry. If I'm strolling through the park with my heart pumping with joy, the last thing I want to do is sit down and write a song.'

'Let Love In' is released tomorrow on Mute. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds play the Shepherd's Bush Empire, 081-740 7474, 25-26 May; and Glastonbury Festival, 0272 767868, 24-26 June.

(Photograph omitted)