When Blixa Bargeld left Nick Cave's Bad Seeds, who would have predicted his departure would result in one of the finest offerings in the band's catalog? Abbatoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus is a double CD or, rather, two completely different albums packaged in one very handsome box with a stylish lyric booklet and subtly colored pastel sleeves. They were recorded in a total of 16 days by producer Nick Launay (Kate Bush, Midnight Oil, Girls Against Boys, Silverchair, INXS, Virgin Prunes, et al.). Abbatoir Blues, the first disc in the set (packaged in pink, of course), is a rock & roll record. Yeah, the same guy who released the Boatman's Call, No More Shall We Part, and Nocturama albums has turned in a pathos-drenched, volume-cranked rocker, full of crunch, punishment -- and taste. Drummer Jim Sclavunos' aggressive, propulsive kit work is the bedrock of this set. It and Mick Harvey's storm-squall guitar playing shake things loose on "Get Ready for Love," which opens the album. As Cave goes right for God in the refrain -- "get ready for love" -- in the maelstrom, a gospel choir roaring "praise Him" responds. His tense, ambivalent obsession with theology is pervasive; he mocks the Western perception of God in the heavens yet seeks the mystery of His nature. That he does so while careening through a wall of noisy rock damage is simply stunning. It leaves the listener revved up and off-center for what comes next. The chorus -- members of the London Community Gospel Choir -- is prevalent on both records; the Bad Seeds' arrangement utilizes them wisely as counterpoint and mirror for Cave's own baritone. "Cannibal's Hymn" begins as a love song musically; it's chocked with Cave's dark wit and irony and ends far more aggressively while retaining its melody. The single, "Nature Boy," finds itself on Scalvunos' big beat. Cave and his piano use love's irony in contrast with cheap innuendo as underlined by the choir in their best soul croon. "Let Them Bells Ring" is a most dignified and emotionally honest tribute to Johnny Cash and the world he witnessed. The Western wrangle of "There She Goes, My Beautiful World" references Morricone's desert cowboy groove against a swirling cacophony of drums, bashing piano, and the chorus swelling on the refrain, while Cave name drops Johnny Thunders and poet Philip Larkin. The pace is fantastic; its drama and musical dynamics are pitched taut, with lulls in all the right places.
The Lyre of Orpheus, by contrast, is a much quieter, more elegant affair. It is more consciously restrained, its attention to craft and theatrical flair more prevalent. But that doesn't make it any less satisfying. It is a bit of a shock after Abbatoir Blues, but it isn't meant for playing immediately afterward; it is a separate listening experience. The title track tells the myth's tale in Cave's ironical fashion, where God eventually throws a hammer at the subject and Eurydyce threatens to shove his lyre up his nether orifice. Warren Ellis' swampy bouzouki and Thomas Wydler's more stylized drumming move the band in the tense, skeletal swirl where chorus and Cave meet the music in a loopy dance. But in "Breathless," the bard of the love song emerges unfettered at the top of his poetic gift. On "Babe You Turn Me On," he wraps a bawdy yet tender love song in a country music waltz to great effect. But on this album, along with the gentleness, is experimentation with textures and wider dimensions. The sparser sound is freer, less structured; it lets time slip through the songs rather than govern them -- check the wall of Ellis' strings married to a loping acoustic guitar on the moving "Carry Me" as an example. Cave's nastiness and wit never remains absent for long, however, and on "O Children," the album's closer, it returns with this skin-crawlingly gorgeous ballad of murder and suicide. This set is an aesthetic watermark for Cave, a true high point in a long career that is ever looking forward.