Sitting at a piano, chain smoking and deflecting audience requests with a mordant wit, Nick Cave displayed his gentler side at the Wiltern Theater Sunday night. But it would be a mistake to assume that the 43-year-old musician has gone soft; while this tour lowered the volume (and forsaken the guitar squalls that characterized the Birthday Party and Bad Seeds albums), Cave’s 90-minute set did not stint on intensity or drama.
“I don’t do happy,” he chided the crowd. “I only do angry or sad.” True to his word, the set emphasized the melancholic aspect of his career, showcasing his affinity with the shadowy emotional terrain of Scott Walker, Jimmy Webb and Leonard Cohen.
That strain has always been present in Cave’s music, but it has usually been more of a garnish than the main course. Cave has always been the most literary of gothic rockers, and his flayed pathos proved to be the perfect fit for the more adult, loungy style he assays on his new album, “No More Shall We Part” (Reprise/Mute).
With his black suit, extruded limbs, long pompadour and stiff walk, Cave could be a Dickensian undertaker; he comes off as mournful even when singing a love song. Backed by members of Australia’s Dirty Three, Cave structured the evening as a series of mini-sets, moving from hushed solo numbers (the new album’s title track and “Henry’s Dream”) to thundering maelstroms such as “The Mercy Seat” (which he slyly introduced as a Johnny Cash song) and the Birthday Party’s “Wild World,” which found Warren Ellis sawing away at his violin like a latter-day John Cale.
It’s a riveting show that could very easily have veered into parody. But Cave walks the knife-edge, embodying the seeming contradictions of passionate conviction and humor. His take on the classic murder ballad “Stagger Lee” is sung with a straight face, while the new song “God Is in the House” builds its case with an avalanche of horrific details, only to end with a tossed off “and he’s not coming out.”
It’s a side of Nick Cave that should be aired out more often.