I wish Nick Cave was more appreciated than he is already here in England. The man is an absolute genius when it comes to making music, his songs are gorgeously rich, and he can flip a switch and smoothly move from one genre to the next. One minute he could be singing about twisted murderers and drinking to forget that he is the captain of his pain, the next he could be sitting at the piano for a gentle love ballad. But I think it’s the latter point that has prevented him from making more of an impact; his music has never been mainstream. The only time he has had a massive impact on the UK charts was the 1996 classic Where the Wild Roses Grow, but that was because it was a teamup with Kylie Minogue.
It’s a crying shame because while he isn’t my outright favourite musician of all time, he is definitely up there and is most certainly one of the most intelligent. So to give him the spotlight here on A-Side Glance and make sure it stays there I am going to be taking a look at his 2004 effort with the Bad Seeds, Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus.
A double album which came at probably one of the more curious times in the career of Cave and the Bad Seeds. Talk with any fan of the band and I’m pretty sure that the last albums that would come up in the conversation would be No More Shall We Part (despite its superb single As I Sat Sadly By Her Side) and Nocturama, from 2001 and 2003 respectively. Compared with previous efforts, they are very middle of the road and could have been taken as a sign that the band was slowing down. Not helping that perception was that after Nocturama’s release, original Bad Seed and all around magnificent bastard Blixa Bargeld departed. With all that in mind, their next effort would have to make a good impression and that was probably why it became a double album. As the title suggests this would see the band experiment with blues rock and gospel this time around, most likely tapping into Cave’s fascination with the Bible and Christianity. Going into it they all seem motivated and keen to make an impression. I’m all ears.
As it’s a double album, we’re going to be taking a look at Abattoir Blues to start off with and then in the next entry we’ll switch over to The Lyre of Orpheus.
Track #1: Get Ready For Love
If this had been a proper hymn or something I’d probably have been a lot more enthusiastic when singing them at primary school. Blending fast paced punk rock with gospel sounds like an oxymoron but here it works and works well. Right away we’re assured that Blixa’s departure isn’t going to be a detriment to the Seeds at all as James Johnston makes a good first impression, as does Jim Sclavunos on the drums. Great start to the album.
Track #2: Cannibal’s Hymn
And we calm things right down and go to the other end of the Nick Cave spectrum with a heartfelt ballad, starting with one of the more romantic lyrics I’ve heard; “You have a heart and I have a key/Lie back and let me unlock you”. I should mention that traditionally it’s hard to pry into Nick Cave’s lyrics so I am challenging myself during this review to work out what he is going on about. Here I believe it’s about someone close to the narrator who turned on him, but saw the light and came back before it was too late. Maybe it’s because I’ve listened to too much Radiohead but I find it sweet that instead of being vilified, this person is welcomed back and cared for by the narrator who warns her away from the titular cannibals. Why can’t more songs end this way?
Track #3: Hiding All Away
I feel like I like this one more than I should. It’s got the tone of a hunt, and the sound of something you may hear in a remake of a classic detective or gangster film. Here we have a girl trying to find the narrator, searching high and low and it’s a tale that unfortunately doesn’t have some sort of resolution. No finding of the narrator alive or dead, just a repetition of the line ‘There is a war coming’ for the last minute, with a loud clash of instruments that contrasts with what we’ve heard up to this point in the song. I can’t help but feel there should have been a resolution, an end to this girl’s quest. After all, she ended up pretty intimate with the butcher towards the end which would imply she was desperate for leads. Then again, maybe that works in the narrator’s favour, bigging him up by implying he is that damn good at hiding. Like I say, I probably like it more than I should.
Track #4: Messiah Ward
The piano makes itself known in this one, where we end up doing a bit of stargazing. Not much to say about this one unfortunately, other than its reiteration of the fact that it’s challenging to keep watching what is going on. In a way, at the time of writing this during the long and strange US election week, that does seem poignant.
Track #5: There She Goes, My Beautiful World
Loving the vivid imagery in this one, makes that beautiful world an understatement. Now is probably a good time to mention the guest backing vocalists on this one (The gospel choir if you will) who especially help to bring the chorus to life, not just on this song but on Get Ready For Love as well. Definitely the cream on the cake for this album.
Track #6: Nature Boy
Not my words, the words of Nature Boy Ric Flair. And also me upon hearing this song for the first time. Once again, a set of poignant lyrics in the first verse, both nowadays and back then. Frankly though I don’t think Cave is the kind of guy to talk of contemporary events at this point in his career so I’ll stop harping on about connections that aren’t really there.
For me, this song is very much the narrator’s bildungsroman, a tale of them coming of age and finding their place in the world, starting with the routine bloodshed on the news, branching out to meet a girl, a raunchy night at her’s, and time spent together around nature. A very uplifting song, and my favourite up to this point. I have seen a few people call it overrated and a little centred towards pop and I can see that, but I still think it’s excellent.
Track #7: Abattoir Blues
Title track time and this one isn’t quite my favourite. Musically it’s quite simple, but that just means the lyrics get a real chance to shine. Here are some of my personal highlights:
“I went to bed last night and moral code got jammed”
“My heart it tumbled like the stock exchange”
“The need for validation, babe, gone completely berserk/I wanted to be your Superman but I turned out such a jerk”
Track #8: Let the Bells Ring
As we stand outside the pearly gates for the penultimate track on Abattoir Blues, it dawned on me just how much of a lighter look this is on the usual topics Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds cover, in this case death. So much of their discography deals with death in a dark, wretched way. Here? Look on the bright side of death. Fitting upbeat and optimistic, here we mourn not the death of the person themselves, rather the world they have left behind. This album is very much one that subverts expectations.
Track #9: Fable of the Brown Ape
And what do you know, once I thought I had it all figured out and my expectations were that there would be another upbeat song to sign off, they were subverted all over again. We hear that classic Seeds sound with gritty guitar work, and verses steadily creeping along before culminating with a crashing of instruments as Cave bids “So long/Farewell/So long”. It’s a twisted yet accurate way of expressing nature being used and abused, which I suppose is a topic that you can’t really put an uplifting spin on. What bothers me though is that titular brown ape is an allegory for something but I cannot for the life of me think what. Just your standard test subject or something more perhaps? There’s something there, it’s a fable after all. A very Seedsian fable.
I must admit this has been the most challenging review I’ve done up to this point. As I said during Cannibal’s Hymn the lyrics of Nick Cave are difficult to read into with how vague they are. But I suppose that’s comforting in a way. With Nick and the Seeds you do and don’t know what you are getting into if that makes sense. Elaborate music, sure, but just how elaborate, and how consistently elaborate? You truly never know what to expect.
And I guess that’s a good thing. It’s an adventure. But to be honest, as long as it’s an adventure with good music I’m all here for it, and there isn’t a dull track to be found on Abattoir Blues. Not all instant classics but no duds either. That’s good enough for me. Helps that it more or less maintains its uplifting tone throughout until the last song, which works especially well in the drizzling shits of 2020.
Abattoir Blues had my curiosity. The Lyre of Orpheus is definitely going to have my attention.