Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds
Abattoir Blues/The Lyre Of Orpheus (Mute)
~review by Uncle Nemesis
This is not, we are assured, a double album. Instead, it’s two separate albums which Nick Cave and/or Mute have taken it into their heads to release as, effectively, a boxed set. I’m sure there’s a fiendishly clever marketing strategy behind this idea, but the end result is simply this: seventeen new Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds songs. And that can’t be bad, no matter what tricksy package they might be delivered in.
So, seventeen songs. And if there’s an overall feel to ‘em it’s this: maturity. Nick’s lyrics tend towards the reflective and the worldly-wise, the thoughts and notions of a man who’s been around and done it all, and has finally reached some conclusions, settled his unquiet spirit (well, at least for some of the time) and can now afford a quizzical glance around at a world that seems to bemuse and amuse in equal measures. But it’s also in the flavour of the music. The caution-to-the-winds thunder of the Bad Seeds that we’ve come to know and love on previous albums, the way the band would churn out the music as if in the midst of a bar-room brawl, is here often mellowed and eased to a kind of late-night bluesey cruise, the musicians pacing themselves all the way. Even on the raucous numbers, like ‘Get Ready For Love’, a rollicking, hollerin’ gospel throwdown, the Bad Seeds never quite let go. They still know how to brew up a righteous racket, but they keep that racket neatly contained.
As an example of this sense of control and restraint, we can do no better than to consider ‘Nature Boy’, which hardly sounds like Nick Cave at all. On first hearing it could almost be one of those mystical love songs Van Morrison sometimes comes up with, smoothly crooned to an easy rock ‘n’ roll backing. (Either that, or it’s a variation on Steve Harley’s ‘Come Up And See Me, Make Me Smile’, which the tune naggingly resembles at times). It does require a slight crunch of mental gears to appreciate that what we’re hearing is, in fact, Nick Cave, old mister Jangling Jack himself, and those maestros of rampaging barrelhouse stomp, the Bad Seeds. All parties are certainly all on their best behaviour here. Fortunately, the song itself, when you penetrate the disconcertingly smooth production and Nick’s own uncharacteristically restrained delivery, is good. The way the verses give way to the rise and tumble and release of the chorus is a neat touch, and the lyrics reveal a wit that is distinctly Cave-esque. What other songwriter, I ask you, could rhyme ‘hysteria’ with ‘wisteria’ and get away with it?
Nick’s lyrical pen is as sharp as ever throughout all the songs, and comes up with many couplets and sets out many scenarios which make me crack an involuntary grin. ‘There She Goes, My Beautiful World’ is a slice of roaring glory - a pell-mell, accusatory anthem to Nick’s muse, who apparently is being a bit tardy in coming through with the goods. ‘St John of the Cross did his best stuff imprisoned in a box/And Johnny Thunders was half alive when he wrote Chinese Rocks,’ points out Nick with petulant irritation, before ruefully considering his own situation: ‘Me, I’m lying here, for what seems like years/I’m just lying on my bed with nothing in my head’. I think Nick’s just gone and written the best song ever about writer’s block.
‘Hiding All Away’ is a crawl through a musical swamp, punctuated by galumphing drums and Nick’s splendidly melodramatic, wrenched-out vocal, interspersed with brief, rackety squalls of ill-used guitar, one of the few occasions where the Bad Seeds get really down and dirty. The final chorus, a give-it-everything cry of ‘There is a war coming!’ with the band getting crazy in the background, is vintage stuff. On ‘Abattoir Blues’ Nick finds himself caught up in a disintegrating world, gazing around with his trademark grim humour: ‘I went to bed last night and my moral code got jammed/I woke up this morning with a Frappucino in my hand’ he sings, a line which neatly skewers the dilemma of anyone who’s found themselves swept up by the relentless corporatisation of everything, try as they might to avoid it.
‘Let The Bells Ring’ is an excursion into the art myth-making, and a slightly surprising one at that. Because, if I haven’t interpreted Nick’s words all wrong, this song is Nick’s own tribute to...Bill Clinton. The references are all pretty oblique, although it’s clear that the song is a hagiographic exercise in we-are-not-worthy-ness directed at someone. But there’s one couplet that drops the essential clue: ‘ All the way from Arkansas/To your sweet and last amen’. I would never have figured Nick, consummate cynic that he is, for a fan of big Bill’s easy charm, but perhaps the point that’s being made here is not quite so obvious. It’s not necessarily that the Clinton presidency was as good as all that - it’s more that by hailing the Clinton years as a golden age, Nick can make a telling point about the grim times that have followed. As the song says: ‘...behold your mighty work/That towers over the uncaring ground/Of a lesser, darker, world’.
It would be over-simplistic to characterise ‘Abattoir Blues’ as the noisy album, while ‘The Lyre Of Orpheus’ is the collection of ballads and smoochers, but it’s nevertheless a fact that the Bad Seeds do pull their horns in somewhat on the second album of the set. Of the songs on the second disc, only ‘Supernaturally’ has a crackling fire in its belly. Elsewhere, the mood is cooled-out, downbeat, and distinctly after-hours. ‘Breathless’ is an alarmingly hippyish love song, complete with hello-trees, hello-sky nature references, while ‘Babe, You Turn Me On’ is a pean to holy lust in a world gone bad - an effective concept, but I must confess when Nick sings the line ‘I make like I’m a little deer/Grazing on the flowers’ I find it difficult to conjure up the requisite mental image. I can imagine Nick Cave as many things, but not, frankly, as a ‘little deer’.
This is an album brimming with confidence, an album by an artist who has worked hard to establish himself and is now enjoying his status. It’s an album of wit and charm, humour and bite, and if the lyrical barbs are often concealed by disarmingly polished music, well, that’s just Nick’s way these days. Nick Cave’s art mellows and matures like a fine wine, and although I find myself occasionally hankering after the rough old plonk of yesteryear, I’m happy to quaff the present vintage down.
The Lyre Of Orpheus
Official site for Nick Cave And The Bad
Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds on the Mute
Reviewed by Uncle Nemesis: http://www.nemesis.to