Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus

(Anti-; 2004)

By Dom Sinacola | 3 November 2004

There is a good deal of music here.

Which is not to excuse Nick Cave’s latest release, the double album Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus, of its faults, or even to justify the album’s bombast. Sure, the double album is, by now, becoming gloriously cliché, but let’s just accept its girth as a necessary exigency of the throbbing future of “M”usic, leave recent ATLien “influences” behind, and move on like Nick Cave once moved on from PJ Harvey.

Only, we’re already trapped by this simile, because Nick Cave is not a man to count his losses and cut the cord clean. The Boatman’s Call, perhaps Cave’s 1997 albatross, slithered through gothic cycles of pity and paramours, the first in what would solidify Cave’s career as a spiritual demagogue falling, ever so prettily, ever so obsessively, from grace. No More Shall We Part (2001) continued introspectively fleecing lovely, darkly melodic ballads from Cave’s bloated existential dilemmas, casting his once-vampiric Aussie squalls in cinematic noir and piano bar intimacy. Taking Nocturama (2003) for its improvisational viciousness—vicious, that is, in respect to the last ten years of Cave’s tenure—and little else, Nick Cave has proven to be a heavy, elegant songwriter, as adept at creating epochal moments in the mundane as he is at drawing out his tales of God as exhaustive journeys of the everyperson.

It would seem, then, that love and beauty plague this man. Understandable, at least, when his ecstatic calls to worship are matched in fervor by the march of humanity toward the slaughterhouse. So, enter Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus: two movements separated ostensibly by Abattoir’s wild, chugging rhythms and Lyre’s plaintive, subtler lull. But this distinction is difficult, because Abattoir’s loudest, most chilling moments have stormy counterparts in Lyre’s piano driven pop. “The Fable of the Brown Ape,” a magnificent mixed drink of tepid, curdling milk and hallucinogenic bubbles, is matched, complimented maybe, by Lyre’s title track, whose blistering final chorus leaps frantically into a throng of rabid “O Mamma’s.”

This said, to peg one side as the champion of the set is superfluous. It would largely depend on whether one would ally with Nocturama’s immediacy or, say, No More’s crawling layers, whether one shouts back at the defrocked preacher or prefers to swoon under the spell of a woozy barfly. Regardless, together they stand, for one price, and no more shall they part.

Abattoir Blues ushers in the album with “Get Ready For Love,” a bullock of spiritual insanity. Through Abattoir, Cave prays to “Him” with skittering, watery guitars, trudging bass, mountainous percussion, morbid imagery, and the feral euphony of the gals in the London Community Gospel Choir. When, in “Hiding All Away,” one of the backup singers breaks into laughter before the Seeds snap back into a massive mélange, the ephemeral glee of Abattoir bares its teeth. Like Tom Waits’s recent Real Gone, Cave seems to understand that his music exists purely in the moment, so swollen with extraneous noise and scatter-shot theatrics that each listen is separated from the last, and each song is only a spectral inkling of what it once was. “There she goes, my beautiful world!” he howls. Time is fleeing. The Abattoir awaits.

And with so much music, some cuts solidly fail, and some stand up to the best in the Bad Seeds canon. In “Spell,” Cave puts fellow Birthday Party alumnus Mick Harvey to work plucking a sullen cadence low in the mix, allowing Harvey’s Dirty Three buddy Warren Ellis to drown a half-hearted violin beneath hollow piano lines. The key in this track is the Gospel Choir, who, in other tracks, often ruins the starkness in Cave’s battered voice, but here flushes up against his haunted croon and bleeds away. In many Bad Seeds releases, a violin or female vocal or piano hook seem to excuse Cave from crafting a more solid song, the Seeds doing little more than garnishing a good idea with dubious filler. Instead, “Spell” is powerful and full, and hearing the band so thoughtfully balanced is a thing of weepy joy.

Similarly, “Easy Money” illustrates Lyre’s most impressive strength: in adding a slight synth scrawl and hushed choir to bare acoustic guitar and piano, Cave’s huge pathos is matched by an equally sturdy restraint. “Babe, You Turn Me On” carries barely a hint of momentum outside twinkly piano and cobwebbed guitar. Thomas Wydler’s sifted percussion throws the spotlight to Cave’s creased sing-speak while the Gospel Choir highlights every tremor in his voice. But here is also Lyre’s most distracting flaw. As the album slows and fuzzes for Lyre’s half, the presence of the Choir becomes more prominent, emerging above the mix in most songs, carrying too much emotive slack. For melodies that thrive in slowly whisking away Abattoir’s punchiness, the Choir’s incessant part feels a bit lazy.

Even so, Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus is a success because Cave is finally admitting to the holes in his oeuvre. With Murder Ballads (1996), it seemed as if he was giving up the frenetic horror of the Birthday Party, and The Boatman’s Call only confirmed that suspicion. Then, in time, along came Nocturama and the promise of an intense, yearly release schedule, injecting a bit of the old muscle into Cave’s signature mopers, but ultimately lacking the meticulous songwriting of all previous efforts. Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus, a beautiful, coherent listen, overtly reconciles the plodding heartbreak of Cave’s long, sleepy ballads with the brimstone of brief studio improvisation. At this rate, next year will be damn good for the Seeds.