Nick Cave’s long, remarkable career is approaching the three-decade mark, full of Tupelo goth, Romantic allegories, murder ballads, and cabaret calamity; only now does it reach the transcendence of Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus. Apparently, 13 is the lucky number. The staggering double album (actually, two separate albums packaged together) is Cave’s 13th release with the Bad Seeds, and yet it feels so fresh, so revelatory, so alive. Marked by a change in line-up (organist James Johnston replaces longtime guitarist Blixa Bargeld, who originally formed the Bad Seeds with Cave) and a returning producer (Nick Launay, who recorded last year’s Nocturama), Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus has the pungent odor of rebirth in its atmosphere.
Cave has always been the existential provocateur, interrogating spirituality and taunting mortality with class and dignity; a philosopher’s grace, if you will. But these two records finally match the breadth of his worldly vision. This is pop music of the heavens and earth: reminiscently ecclesiastical, yet secular in practice; pragmatic in the realm of faith; and as tied to the terrestrial as it is to the celestial. Abattoir Blues and The Lyre of Orpheus, both individually and especially taken together, are records of salacious multitudes, authoritative, sexy, and bewitching like Cave’s voice itself. There’s a continuous ebb and flow of provocative gray areas; moments of redemption and hope are lined with doubt, even wicked pretense, while songs that rupture with God-fearing, knee-knocking intimidation are undercut by jabs of wry humor. Cave and the Bad Seeds have turned in not only one of the year’s most ambitious projects, but a shining example of how good music can sound when its rate of success surpasses the most audacious of set-ups.
Abattoir Blues is the loud rock record of the two, full of some of Cave’s most profoundly fierce music. It’s knotted-up, sweaty, and profane; a pavement-cracking juggernaut of gospel-inspired rock and roll. The London Community Gospel Choir joins Cave and the Bad Seeds on the majority of the songs (they also appear on most of The Lyre of Orpheus), lending the proceedings a manic-preacher-and-congregation vibe. In fact, Abattoir Blues could be called church music for those wary of church. “Get Ready for Love” kicks things off with a Lear jet of gospel-inspired rock. Filled with guitars that swarm like tornadoes and a zealous wall of sound production, the song addresses both fanaticism (“Praise Him till you’ve forgotten what you’re praising Him for”) and chance’s sleight-of-hand (“Well, most of all nothing much ever really happens… / Until we find ourselves at our most distracted”). “Hiding All Away” is a crawling kingsnake of excitable call-and-response, full of stifled maracas, guitars and organs that squeamishly blurt out bluesy riffage. It’s twisted church music, lunging into a groove that squalls like metal on metal. By the time the band reaches the cacophonic climax, with Cave and the choir hollering “There is a war coming”, the mood is as much that of a battle cry as a heeded warning. And in “Nature Boy”, Cave finally gets his inner Neil Diamond on with a razor-sharp pop hook.
The intensity of Abattoir Blues is occasionally dialed back for a more sobered introspection. “Cannibal’s Hymn” heaves in the fleshy sighs of wax organs that sizzle and drip. Hearts beat in sinister selfishness; Cave lets double-entendres rip with the slip of the tongue: “You have a heart and I have a key / Lie back and let me unlock you” and later, “I will never desert you here / Unpetaled among the crocus”. The pounding, sparse arrangement of the title track is heightened by engaging the grisly, downward slope of the world with a smirk: “Mass extinction, darling, hypocrisy / These things are not good for me”. Normal indicators of being and balance are stripped away in “Messiah Ward”, the choir’s voices like wind through the trees: “We could navigate our position by the stars / But they’ve taken out the stars”.
By contrast, The Lyre of Orpheus is largely a more restrained and pastoral work. Its production is more spacious, arid, and less constrictive. It opens with the woozy title track, a bloody and sardonic retelling of the myth of Orpheus. Cave diabolically delights in the lyre’s path of destruction (“Birdies detonated in the sky / Bunnies dashed their brains out on the trees”) and the song’s pitting a three-way battle between man, woman, and God. The most indelible songs on The Lyre of Orpheus are those that are disarmingly love struck: the shuffling, flute-laden “Breathless”, the lightheaded, naughty ballad “Babe, You Turn Me On” (sample lyric: “I put one hand on your round ripe heart / And the other down your panties”), and the hot-coals dance of “Supernaturally”. The records’ initial gospel vibe is brought full-circle with the heady closing tracks. The choir uplifts and calms in the weightless repetitions of “Carry Me”, while “O Children” suggests a foreboding farewell in its allusions to prison camps.
In the age of 80-minute CDs, bloated single-disc albums saturate the market and, ironically, would have qualified as double albums only a few decades ago. The impact of the sweeping artistic statement has been lost, thanks to technological advances and the gluttony of audiences. Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus isn’t a double-disc affair due to lengthy content (both discs could almost squeeze onto one); rather, it uses two discs to separate distinctly opposite, yet symbiotic, musical works. Probably not Cave’s intention, but he has revived the relevance and meaning of the double album, a format that has reached depths of cheapened self-parody, something lost with quadraphonic sound and 8-track decks.
It would be tempting to call Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus the completion of Cave’s defining trilogy, pairing it with The Boatman’s Call and No More Shall We Part. But Abattoir Blues and The Lyre of Orpheus are so strong, so above-the-bar, that they represent an ascension to a new abstract plane of creativity. In their evocations of sin and redemption, lust and love, nature and religion, Cave and the Bad Seeds have unleashed a contentious vision of sound and fury. It’s a palette as dense and complicated as life itself, a gauge of our fears, hopes, and absurdities. With Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus, Nick Cave leads us into temptation and delivers us from evil. Amen.