Abbatoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus
I'm going to be writing some best of articles periodically over the coming days/weeks. My initial intention was to write a long series of articles about the top twenty albums of the decade, and that might still happen, but I can't help myself but write this right now. Without further ado, I present the best album of the decade:
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus
Nick Cave’s work during the decade has been stellar, from writing The Proposition and scores for various films, to the creation of Grinderman, but nothing he has done resonates to the level of the monster of a double album that is Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus. Nocturama, their previous album, wasn’t exactly great, and perennial Bad Seeds guitarist (and general wackjob) Blixa Bargeld left the band. Things seemed grim for the future, but Nick had been putting out some great material for a very long time, and a decline had to come eventually. What wasn’t expected, however, was the majesty that would come next on Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus, the Bad Seeds’ strongest output since the Tender Prey/Henry’s Dream era, and quite possibly the best album Nick’s ever committed to this world. It’s a sprawling epic, ostensibly separated in theme between its two discs (Abattoir is home to the harder, rocky songs, whereas Lyre is the realm of balladry). It’s musically rich in a way we haven’t seen from the Seeds. This is the largest group they’ve put together for an album, featuring a whole manner of guitars, bass, keyboards, organs, multiple percussionists, and more involvement from new resident wackjob Warren Ellis on any crazy stringed instrument he can get his hands on (the infamous electric Bouzouki, for example). And on top of all that, The London Community Gospel Choir is featured on much of the album. This, my friends, is what makes the difference.
Take, for instance, the de facto opening track (Abattoir Blues does appear to be designed to go first, though it’s technically interchangeable) of the piece, “Get Ready for Love.” It’s a big, bombastic rock track about the hypocrisy and weakness of organized religion (“Praise Him ‘til you’ve forgotten what you’re praisin’ Him for/Praise Him a little bit more!”). The choir is there following Nick’s moves every step of the way, including little solo vocal flourishes during the refrain. Would this song have been fine without the choir, relying instead on the rest of the Bad Seeds filling out the background accompaniment? Sure. Would it have been nearly as good as it is in the current configuration with the blustery and epic sweeps of the choir? Nope. Not even close. It gets even better, though, as the song is immediately followed by “Cannibal’s Hymn,” which is actually my favorite Bad Seeds song. Like ever. It’s fiendishly clever, and basically has some of the best lyrics Cave has ever written. Ever (Case in point, the first verse: “You have a heart and I have a key/Lie down and let me unlock you/Those heathens you hang with down by the sea/All they want to do is defrock you/I know a river where we can dream/It’ll swell up, burst its banks, babe, and rock you”). Internal and external rhyme schemes, an intricate stream of assonance and alliteration weaving in and out of every line. It’s undeniably catchy, and the lyrics themselves are awesome on their own, independent of the poetic resonance. The drums are tight; Jim Sclavunos can use a hi-hat pedal for effect just as well as anyone, the ringing of the open cymbals tearing through the empty space until it’s casually and callously deprived of life in one short moment.
What’s better, is the way the next track, “Hiding All Away,” ends. It’s one of the longer tracks of the album, clocking in at the six and a half minute mark, and represents a long form ramble about, well, I’m not really sure. It’s obviously about someone, possibly a former lover, trying to track down Mr. Cave and going through a whole series of encounters, most of which do not end particularly well. What’s important, though, is the ending. Cave turns introspective for the last verse (“Some of us, we hide away/Some of us, we don’t/Some’ll live to love another day/And some of us won’t/But we all know there is a law/And that law it is love/And we all know there is a war coming/Coming from above”), just to take us by surprise when the final refrain blisters through the speakers, with Cave, the Bad Seeds, and the choir all chanting “THERE IS A WAR COMING!” as loud as they damn well can while the music swirls into a massive crescendo that shakes the very fabric of art. I’ve listened to that last minute countless times, and it still gives me chills every time. It’s the single most impressive minute of music of the decade juxtaposed against this weird, wild little track about nothing in particular with a bunch of strange imagery.
What’s scary is that the rest of the album is just as good as those first three tracks. Lead single “Nature Boy” is the kind of rabble rousing legit pop song that he’ll sneak onto a record every now and then to break up the doom and gloom. “The Fable of the Brown Ape” is probably the weakest of the seventeen tracks, a weird little piece that closes the Abattoir side. It’s got this rousing pseudo-chorus that you expect to repeat a third time after the second verse, but the song instead just decides to sort of end. It’s possible this was intentional; it definitely puts you off on the wrong foot. It’s the one slight little weakness in a mostly flawless package.
The Lyre of Orpheus begins with, well, “The Lyre of Orpheus,” a ludicrously violent retelling of the Orphic myth in the Grand Guignol tradition. Really, this is the lost eleventh track of Murder Ballads (there’s a lot of “Stagger Lee” in the content of this song, though without the hilariously over the top rampant vulgarity), but fits perfectly well as the opening salvo of the “quiet” half of the double disc. Love songs and ballads take center stage for the rest of this half, including the super-sweet flute piece “Breathless.” “Babe, You Turn Me On” features my personal favorite lyric of the entire album (“You leapt into the abyss but find/It only goes up to your knees”). “Supernaturally,” with its rhythmic hand clapping, is the one piece of energy on the otherwise somber disc, and is a perfectly fine song in its own right. The cornerstone of the second disc is the series of four slow, stately somber mood pieces that dominate the run time, “Easy Money,” “Carry Me,” “Spell,” and closing track “O Children.” Much like “Hiding All Away” and “Get Ready for Love,” the choir steals the show and cements the legacy of these songs. They’re great examples of the sort of Elder Statesman Nick Cave, a man who is comfortable in his place in music history, and will remain free to write songs that he wants to sing, not worried at all about expectations. And these are gorgeous songs, dripping with mood and emotion. They’re about love and sadness and everything that matters in the world.
“O Children,” specifically, is the strongest of the bunch, and probably the second best song overall among the seventeen (which is part of why it’s so deliriously awesome that the song was featured in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1). He sings this song like the very world hinges upon its completion, while the ethereal choir floats in and out during the refrain, contrasting with Cave’s well established baritone in a beautifully haunting way. This is a song about regret, what specific regret it’s difficult to tell, but the emotion is raw and uncompromising. Especially the final series of lines (“Hey, little train, we’re jumping on/The train that goes to the kingdom/We’re happy, ma, we’re having fun/And the train ain’t even left the station,” etc.), which seem like they should be uplifting, and I guess they are in their own way, but there’s an undercurrent of loss, and the sense that Mr. Cave has ulterior motives and may not completely mean what he’s saying.
There’s a lot more that can be talked about. I haven’t gone over every song on the album, but I hope I’ve given enough of a sense about how magical it is to listen to Nick Cave create music at the absolute apex of his craft. This is the best music the Bad Seeds have ever created, complex and full and wholly realized in every way, paired with lyrics that just destroy the mind, constantly dazzling the ear with poetic flourishes and delicious rhymes. Cave has always been a wonderful wordsmith, but he’s never written lyrics like this, before or since. The lyrics from Murder Ballads, for example, are good and creepy and erudite, and fit the mood and aims of the album perfectly. But a good amount of it is also clunky, with extra syllables shoved into unbalanced meter in order to make a point about Paradise Lost or some such other reference. It doesn’t ruin those songs or anything, and is completely acceptable within its own context; at that time, it wasn’t necessarily obvious that Cave was capable of better. Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus is such a game changer that it actually makes the rest of Cave’s catalogue worse. I find myself listening to other Bad Seeds records wondering why the lyrics aren’t as good as “Cannibal’s Hymn,” or why there’s nothing that shakes me to my very core the way that last minute of “Hiding All Away” does. As such, I never really got into Dig Lazarus Dig!!! even though it’s a good album. A very good album, even, but it’s not Abattoir. It’s grungier and Grinderman-ier, and that’s not what I want from the Bad Seeds anymore.
This is a once in a lifetime record. It’s possible Nick Cave doesn’t have anything left in him that could ever deign to think about possibly considering the option of pursing the idea of challenging the songs on this masterwork. This isn’t just the best album of the decade. It’s one of the best albums of all time. Ever. This is Bone Machine. This is Abbey Road. This is The Mollusk. This is Quadrophenia. This is that one album that takes everything out of you to make and changes the landscape of rock music forever. It’s a mad, sad, giant, colossal piece of work.