As published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
November 5, 2004
Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds' new double-disc set Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus is an exhilarating double blast of joy, rage, dour Aussie blues, back-alley philosophy, dark-end-of-the-street religious revelation, death-row humor, profound profanity - and even a touch of sweet sentimentality.
In other words, it's everything that those of us who love Nick Cave love about Nick Cave.
This set is the strongest music Cave has released in nearly a decade. Between 1992 and 1996, Cave released, right in a row, the three greatest albums of his career, Henry's Dream, Let Love In and Murder Ballads. (There was an excellent concert album, Live Seeds, in there too.)
Since that time, his albums have all been worthy. But, beginning with The Boatman's Call, Cave's efforts were lower key, gentler, though no less dark meditations, lacking the fire and ferocity of those earlier works.
We should have known though that something amazing was afoot after Cave's last album, 2003's Nocturama, an otherwise sedate work that was carried by the concluding track, a crazy, obsessive, hard-punching 15-minute odyssey of lust and depravation called "Babe, I'm On Fire."
This new effort proves he was right.
Abattoir Blues and The Lyre of Orpheus are separate albums, even though they're sold together. (Don't whine. The set costs about as much as a single CD.)
In general, Abattoir is louder and more raucous, while Lyre, at least in form, is softer and mellower -- though that rule was made to be broken by the frantic Lyre tune "Supernaturally."
I probably ought to insert here the boilerplate rockcrit admonition against double albums -- how with some judicious editing, two good albums could have been boiled down to one great one. Well, maybe that's true here, but the fact is, each track is worth listening. I'm happy that every song is on here.
Of the two albums, I prefer Abattoir, mainly because it recalls Cave's harder rocking days.
It kicks off with "Get Ready For Love", a hard-charging gospel tune. "Get Ready for love!" Cave bellows as the London Community Gospel Choir answers, "Praise Him!" Organist James Johnston (a new Seed) makes his instrument scream with ecstasy, while Mick Harvey's guitar plays hopped-up Yardbirds riffs. Meanwhile Cave shouts about God's face burning in your retinas.
The full promise of Cave's newfound rock 'n' roll fervor, however isn't realized until the tough, crunching "Hiding All Away." It's the story of a man hiding from his lover - we're never told exactly why - with each verse a tale of abuse and frustration for the hapless searcher, the victim of a series of dirty jokes. But in the last verse, the song shifts as Cave sings "And we all know a war is coming/ Coming from above/" The Bad Seeds turn it up to 11 as Cave and the choir repeat "There is a war coming! There is a war coming!"
One of the most touching songs here is "Let the Bells Ring," Cave's tribute to the late Johnny Cash, (who recorded Cave's electric chair horror "The Mercy Seat.")
Unlike some Cash tributes, The Bad Seeds don't try to imitate JC's trademark chunka-chunka sound. Instead it's a stately eulogy that Bono would have given his left testicle to have written.
"Your passing is not what we mourn/But the world you left behind," Cave sings. "Those of us not fit to tie the laces on your shoes / Must remain behind to testify through an elementary blues."
The Lyre of Orpheus, while quieter than the other album, has some destined-to-be-classic Cave songs. The title song featuring a sinister mandolin by Warren Ellis, sounds like Cannon's Jug Stompers fronted by a grim Australian singing obscene versions fo Greek myths.
But Cave shows his tender side in "Breathless," a light - especially for Nick Cave! - tune, which with its flute and acoustic guitar recalls The Incredible String Band.
My favorite tune on Lyre has to be "Babe You Turn Me On." With acoustic musical background that sounds like a long, lost outtake from Astral Weeks (except something here -- is that Conway Savage's piano? -- sounds like steel drums), Cave moans lustily to a lover. And you have to admire a songwriter who can use the words "nightingale" and "panties" in the same verse.
Some songs on Lyre -- slow, piano-driven ballads like "Easy Money" and "O Children" -- show that Cave hasn't completely turned his back on the more contemplative style he showed in late '90s works like The Boatman's Call and No More Shall We Part. In fact these songs will remind fans of Cave's more hard-edged work exactly what was admirable about those softer albums.
"O Children," especially is powerful. It's built on the old gospel train metaphor, but this it's hard to tell whether this train is bound for glory or doom.
The beat of this 7-minute dirge starts out kind of plodding, the intensity starts to build as the choir starts singing "O children, lift up your voice, lift up your voice/Children/Rejoice, rejoice."
But this only seems seems to provoke Cave, whose gloomy verses ("Poor old Jim's as white as a ghost/he's found the answer that was lost/We're weeping now, weeping because/There ain't nothing we can do to protect you") contradicts the call for joy. Cave moans in resignation, the ecstatic glory of "Get Ready For Love" turned sour, as the choir signs, "Hey little train wait for me/I once was blind but now I see/Have you a seat left for me ."
Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus proves that Cave still is in prime. He's a dirty-minded disciple, an oracle of the slaughterhouse, a poet, a preacher, a prophet -- and a damned powerful rocker as he pushes 50.
Nick on the radio: Terrell's Sound World will present an hour of Nick Cave music, including many from these albums Sunday night on KSFR, 90.7 FM (and streaming live on www.ksfr.org). The show starts 10 p.m. Sunday, the Cave segment will begin right after 11 p.m.