Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus
r. Cave was on BBC2’s identikit KEEPING IT REAL ‘live’ music event Later ... with Jools Holland recently. Yes, here in the UK we like to differentiate between happy-go-lucky chartpop shows and deeply serious indie record programmes ... by letting an ex-member of Squeeze present the latter. Which in many ways is wonderfully symbolic of just how ridiculous the whole charade is. Although I shouldn’t complain too much, because without Later I may never have had the opportunity to witness the astonishing Nick Cave dance phenomena. Looking worrying close to a real-life version of Jack Skellington, Nick’s technique seems to involve a lot of vigorous pointing and spasmodically explosive activity in between periods of relative lounge-singer calm. It brought a stupid smile to this jaded face.
As did his new double album Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus (one loud, one less loud—although a few musical escapologists sneak across the border in either direction with faked passports). You can surely understand my original apprehension. After all, can you imagine the potentially mind-blowing excitement of a No More Shall We Part/Noctorama bundle? It’s certainly feasible to force a decent full-length effort out of those two, but not without a struggle. And a burning desire to hear maudlin piano ballads. The previously enigmatic religious aspects of Nick’s work were in serious danger of spinning from Old Testament Fire to Happy Clappy Naivety on the patented Jesus-o-meter. Blixa had been turfed out and replaced by a gospel choir. Portends were the arse-end of awful.
So, naturally, it all turned out brilliantly.
Sex, death, love, religion and coffee are all present and correct, bustling and jostling with each other as if attempting to nab a good seat in a particularly packed cinema. Which would probably be showing Hammer Horror flicks and documentaries about Ancient Greek mythology non-stop. For the next ten years. You see, I must confess that it’s the seemingly insignificant things that tip this ensemble over the towering cliff of quality into the valley of genuine delight. I like it when the choir noticeably mess up their backing vocals on the jittery, cascading “Hiding All Away”, but the band leave it in anyway. I like it when Nick talks slightly creepily about panties and does atomic bomb impressions on “Babe, You Turn Me On”. I like it when The Bad Seeds write an obvious single (“Nature Boy”) and fill it with weird allusions to deep sea diving crossed with references to Sappho. And I couldn’t help but grin when urged that “If you’ve got a field / That don’t yield / Well, get up now and hoe it” by Mr. Cave’s distinctive tones.
But then, I’ve always liked my lyrics open to the full scope of interpretation; clunky, ironic or just secretly fantastic?
And that’s merely the minutia. Meta is the only way to go when dealing with what is, essentially, two albums. Expanding to a far broader sense, there’s bombastic energy aplenty. “Supernaturally” judders along with a piratical, sea-shanty swagger and a mysterious message about having witches for girlfriends. Or possibly something else. That aforementioned gospel choir take “There She Goes, My Beautiful World” beyond the sum of its parts, and “Fable Of The Brown Ape” is, in some way or another, a disturbingly odd farewell to Blixa. The ever-present religious overtones are there amidst the undisciplined rabble of “Get Ready For Love”, but just when they appear at their most cloyingly obvious on “Let The Bells Ring” it all turns out to be a hilarious misunderstanding on my part. Apparently that track is about Johnny Cash. So I can only assume that Johnny Cash was Jesus. This is welcome news.
It’s easy to get over-eager about a decent album that appears after some significantly less magnificent efforts, and perhaps that’s precisely what I’ve just done. But I don’t especially care. What I hear throughout this release, and what I’m latching so strongly onto, is my own imagined version of what a Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds record should be like. “O Children” demonstrates it marvellously. Repeated sounds lurk unsettlingly in the background as restrained piano and desperate, almost pleading calls to “Lift up your voice” lead us through a tale of regret, guilt, atrocity and salvation. On a casual listen it seems mournful. In the right mood it can be utterly devastating. And this from a song which, on the surface at least, seems to suggest hope for an afterlife.
That’s the kind of Nick Cave I love to hear.