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Album Review: Abattoir Blues/ The Lyre of Orpheus

Hearing a busker on St. Denis perform a haunting rendition of “O Children” inspired me to buy (yes, actually purchase) Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ 2004 double album, Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus. By turns dark and raunchy, vulnerable and wistful, Cave paints a wild, potent, and yet-mystical cosmos. Rather than the traditional rock couriers (tiresome instrumental breaks, “guitar heroics”, woozy psychedelic lyrics) for such Gothic melodrama, the intensity here comes via lush poetic lyricism, hungry percussion, and eerie, sinewy melodies.

Like the Cat Empire, another contemporary Australian alternative rock band with a similar appreciation for the savage beauty of Mother Earth, Cave flirts with classical and biblical imagery. He ruminates on the capriciousness of artistic muses in “There She Goes My Beautiful World”, leers a lurching domestic tale in “The Lyre of Orpheus”, and ominously intones the Old Testament-y “Fable of the Brown Ape”. Some tracks have Cave half story-telling, half singing in a low, grinning growl, while others, to the contrary, sport velvety orchestration (choirs, strings) and softer, sadder vocals.

“There She Goes My Beautiful World” is a defiant bid for transcendence that can’t decide whether its implicit tears are from joy or despair. Witty quips about historical artistic geniuses are punctuated by the narrator’s own dogfight with poetic inspiration. I wish he’d taken the refrain “There she goes my beautiful world, there she goes my beautiful world, there she goes my beautiful world, there she goes again” a bit further musically. The first two lines soar upward, building on the song’s manic, exultant pace, teasing with the possibility that the song might be lifted out of its predictable shape into more sublime territory. But then, it turns back down again into a neat little package of tonic disappointment. Only the harmonic intervention of the backing choir saves the phrase from sounding like the more saccharine of the Brill Building ditties by (almost) mutating the tune. That being said, after a few listens, I began tuning out the main melody here anyways.

And all this is minor criticism; this is one of my favorite tracks, a stunning, futile attempt to convey the surges of emotion when, overwhelmed by the world’s pain and joy and possibility and wonder and the swell of your own shapeless desire, you long to burst out of the seams of your skin and tear into the wind and your most sophisticated articulation is “I LOVE” and “I WANT”. Come to think of it, maybe the minor failure is appropriate, because the song isn’t just about the desire for transcendence but also the poet’s inability to achieve it. A parallel seems apt, something about always being ultimately unable to escape traditional musical forms.

If “There She Goes” might have fallen short in using minor modulations to their utmost potential, “Spell” (a darker, more ethereal number) was wildly successful in using the same device to slip the unsuspecting listener down into the dark, delicious depths just under the surface of the melody. Another stunner, way better than that busker’s version, is “O Children”, an incandescently rueful reflection on the human condition that features chilling backing chorals (a device Cave frequently uses to great effect on this album.)

Songs that are solid but less compelling are “Hiding All Away” (which sounds like some psychopathic George Thoroughgood scripted by a Bob Dylan already strung out from writing “Desolation Row”) and “Breathless” (a pleasant if inoffensive love ode made pastoral with animal noises, charmingly amateurish pan-pipes, and guitar-strumming, recalling Van Morrison at his most bucolic.)

I’m always tempted to skip “Carry Me”, with its panicky, stunted verses (“look away, look away, and never more think of me”) intoned over a churning underbelly of piano and whining strings, but I’m unfailingly arrested by the titular refrain. Simple and poignant, it seems a guileless supplication of the heart that breaks through, persistent, over the afflicted cerebral wranglings that came before.

Where our only preoccupations given voice on the top 40 these days are “lighting up the club” and “staying up all night to get lucky”, Abattoir Blues/Lyre of Orpheus is refreshingly cathartic in its attention to our deeper, more ancient urges. The well-crafted music is by turns lovely, lewd, wickedly humorous and imminently listenable, but it also bares unflinchingly the dark parts of the soul: the selfish violence of love, the cruel, sad missteps of human society, the burning thirst to create, and to destroy, and the mercy and sadness and longing in all of us.