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The Power and the Gory

 

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds: Abattoir Blues / The Lyre of Orpheus

Anti-, 2004

Rating: 4.0

 

 

Posted: October 25, 2004

By Laurence Station

For those who felt Nick Cave's No More Shall We Part was too studied and meditative, and last year's Nocturama a rocking but vapid workout for his band the Bad Seeds, Abattoir Blues / The Lyre of Orpheus finds the resourceful Australian offering a healthy serving of both. Cave wisely avoids splitting the material evenly between dark and light elements; human nature -- the primary concern here, as it's been throughout Cave's solo career -- is far too messy and contradictory to neatly subdivide the good from the bad. It's all a matter of perspective and intent, something Cave covetously explores across the two discs.

The most explicit nod to that stark division is in the different styles of the two discs. Abattoir Blues is heavier, more rhythm-oriented; Orpheus, while hardly a shrinking violet, tends toward piano and a moderately softer tempo. Cave purposefully employs different drummers (Jim Sclavunos on Abattoir and Thomas Wydleron on Lyre) for the sessions, to ensure a different sound and feel for each. But this double album is still unified by the ideas and questing concerns of Cave, a man profoundly captivated by the bestial and the blessed within all of us.

On Abattoir Blues' fiery, tone-setting "Get Ready For Love," Cave dons the tattered robes of what could be a wandering defrocked priest, grimly observing "the miracle that was promised creeps quietly by." The apocalyptic examination "Messiah Ward" ("The stars have been torn down / The moon is locked away") and moodily prophetic ramble "Hiding All Away" ("There is a war coming") tie into Abattoir's fatalistic sketch of a world that's lost its moral bearing, and whose inhabitants will soon face divine wrath.

Cave tempers the dire atmosphere by offering a beautifully orchestrated take on working his way out of a creative cul-de-sac ("There She Goes, My Beautiful World") and offering a heartfelt tribute to Johnny Cash ("Let The Bells Ring"), which contains the elegantly reverential verse "There are those of us not fit to tie / The laces of your shoes / Must remain behind to testify / Through an elementary blues." Abattoir's skies may be washed in crimson, but such a striking shade represents passion and creative desire as much as it symbolizes Judgment Day.

The Lyre of Orpheus is saddled with the more subdued cuts of the two, and while it fails to measure up to Abattoir, there's still a fair amount of material worth chewing on. The title track is a cheeky re-imagining of the well-worn Greek myth, with Orpheus favoring his art over pleasures of the flesh, and destroying everything around him in the process. When he plucks his titular instrument for Eurydice, her "eyes popped from their sockets and her tongue burst through her throat." Later, "birdies detonated in the sky" and "bunnies dashed their brains out on the trees." Finally, Orpheus stirs God's anger and is cast down to hell. Cave's mixing of religions works because of the absurdist framework he's contrived.

"Babe, You Turn Me On" contains a line the perfectly encapsulates the loftier notions of love and joy with the baser needs of the flesh: "I put one hand on your round ripe heart / And the other down your panties." The excessively pleading "O Children," featuring the London Community Gospel Choir (which also appears on Abattoir), is the most glaring false note; Cave simply doesn't do blind optimism convincingly. The future may be in the children, as the song tritely indicates, but Cave's hardly the most adroit messenger for such a sentiment. His talent lies in navigating thornier moralistic hinterlands.

Unsurprisingly, Cave's overriding thematic goal of reconciling morality with desire on Abattoir Blues / The Lyre of Orpheus falls short of its mark. But with such a complex and difficult target, that's to be expected -- it's rare enough to find any artist willing to reach so far. As long as Cave continues pondering the imponderables, however, we can count on more albums like this ambitious double shot, which nearly scores a bull's-eye.

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