In the Bible of contemporary gospel music, Nick Cave’s new pair of albums prove he’s a Major Prophet.
Like David Eugene Edwards (of Sixteen Horsepower and Woven Hand), Cave’s brutal honesty, surreal symbolism, zeal for the sublime, and righteous anger at himself and the reset of humanity sets him up as one of rock and roll’s equivalents to John the Baptist crying in the wilderness, making way for the return of the Lord even as he decries those who claim to speak for God.
Cave embraces his role as a hellfire-and-brimstone poet of the weeds and the wilderness on these simultaneous releases—Abattoir Blues and The Lyre of Orpheus. Pondering the cost of war, the greed of superpowers, selfishness disguised as love, lies dressed up as patriotism, and the parlance of religion employed for sinister purposes, Cave’s songs could not be more timely. And they have never arrived with such force. After 2003’s disappointing album Nocturama, in which it sounded like Cave’s musical well had run dry, Abattoir Blues and The Lyre of Orpheus represent a flood of new creativity and energy for Cave. These are the most creative works of his career, some of them stand among the loudest and angriest, and a handful are the closest thing to “beautiful” he’s ever composed. The albums will likely stand the test of time as the pinnacles of his long, dark, strange career, unless he finds some way to go farther on this new surge of vision.
Strangely enough, he accomplishes this in the absence of his longtime guitarist, the Bad Seeds’ Blixa Bargeld. In the open space that remains without Bargeld’s bold, caustic chords, Cave decorates his songs with everything from flutes to gospel choirs, from Jews harps to string sections. The result is a sound as full and forceful as anything on U2’s latest effort. Musically, each album is a furnace unto itself, roaring with fiery guitars and trembling with the force of a Spirit-filled congregation that can actually the judgment coming over the horizon.
The lyrics of both records are steeped in the blood of history’s war crimes, as this self-deprecating preacher stands in awe of beauty and love even as he sees those very gifts flying like a flag over the exploits of warmongers and devils.
For all of U2’s conscience-burdened lines about Western greed on How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, Cave comes up with the year’s most pointed (and self-damning) lyric about the problem, snarling snidely, “The sky is on fire, the dead are heaped across the land, / I woke up this morning with a Frappucino in my hand.” That’s just one of many lines barbed enough to provoke both a wry smile and a wince of shame or regret.
Abattoir Blues begins with “Get Ready For Love,” in which the Bad Seeds rock as if their lives depend on it. It’s a fiery song of Gospel promise, as Christ comes charging down from the heavens on what sounds more like a freight train than a chariot, bringing the kind of love that should make us tremble and beg for mercy. Cave is at once mocking the hypocrisy and empty emotionalism of contemporary religion (“Praise him ’til you’ve forgotten what you’re praising him for”) and reminding us that God’s work is going on in ways we fail to understand: “The miracle of his promise creeps quietly by.” He seems to be stuck in a conundrum: Why should we love God? But then again, why should God love us? Cave sings with such fury that, if this were alive show, you’d expect to see the folks in the front row heading for the exits or the back wall.
“Cannibal’s Hymn” places us in the perspective of a singer who is full of zeal to save a beautiful woman’s soul; but as he beguiles her with promises of salvation and damns “those heathens you hang with,” it’s clear that he’s plotting his own form of conquest. Deeply unsettling in this day of church sex scandals and evangelism styled as propaganda.
“Hidin’ All the Way” is sung by an elusive desire, escaping those who seek it (Him?) in earthly things. The singer assures the listener that, although their search will continue, they know in their hearts what the law is about.
You searched through all my poets
From Sappho through to Auden
I saw the book fall from your hands
As you slowly died of boredom
I had been there, dear,
but I was not there anymore
I had been there, now I’m hiding all way.
But there’s a suggestiono that the search won’t last forever, as the song builds to an earth-shaking declaration that “THERE IS A WAR COMING!”
In “Messiah Ward,” the victims of wars we wage for pride and selfishness are paraded before the people responsible, and they are encouraged to look the other way. The person in charge is glad to have your support, but he’s also conveniently working outside of any familiar moral framework.
We could navigate out position by the stars
But they’ve taken out the stars
The stars have all gone
I’m glad you’ve come along
We could comprehend our
condition by the moon
But they’ve ordered the the moon not to shine
Still, I ‘m glad you’ve come along
I was worried out of my mind
Cause, they keep bringing out the dead
It’s easy just to look away
They’re bringing out the dead, now
And it’s been a long, strange day
This is a war song, clearly, taking place in a day long after Bob Dylan’s fears of a world in which “we’re breaking down the distance between right and wrong (Oh Mercy’s “Ring Them Bells”).
The album’s high point, “There She Goes, My Beautiful World,” dwells on the elusive beauty of the world, something he can only clumsily try to capture in words. Bemoaning his writer’s block, he sings,
John Willmot penned his poetry
riddled with the pox
Nabakov wrote on index cards,
at a lectem, in his socks
St. John of the Cross did his best stuff
imprisoned in a box
And JohnnyThunders was half alive
when he wrote Chinese Rocks
Well, me, I’m lying here, with nothing in my ears …
Send that stuff on down to me
Unable to conjure the language, or even a vision, he makes up for it by expressing his despair at the decline of the world that he loves by revving the motors of his gospel choir engines until they smoke.
“Nature Boy” comes on like gangbusters, like a U2 hit, delving into the darkness of human behavior (“some ordinary slaughter, I saw some routine atrocity”) in contrast to the glory of God revealed in nature’s beauty. Its chorus echoes U2’s “Mysterious Ways,” trying to apprehend the Spirit as it moves: “She moves among the sparrows / and she moves among the trees / and she moves among the flows / and she moves something deep inside of me…”
“Abattoir Blues” gives us more views of the world disintegrating for lack of a moral code. Cave finds lovers “entwined together in this cultural of death,” while the singer’s heart has “tumbled like the stock exchange,” his “need for validation gone completely berserk.” He laments to his beloved, “I wanted to be your Superman but I turned out such a jerk.” The song focuses on our foolishness and pride, and what it costs the rest of the world. The ladies chanting “a-ba-ttoir bluuuues” sound like the spooky soul sisters of the recent Leonard Cohen albums.
The albums explodes into Cave’s most glorious and sincere expression of worship in “Let the Bells Ring,” which features warbling guitar lines that beg for The Edge to show up and throw down a euphoria-inducing solo.
Cave calls directly to Christ in this song, the most straightforward in the whole collection, and testifies:
There are those of us not fit to tie
The laces of your shoes
Must remain behind to testify
Through an elementary blues
So, let’s walk outside, the hour is late
Through your crumbs and scattered shells
Where the awed and the mediocre wait
Barely fit to ring the bells.
That would be a profound finale, capping the most powerful gospel album of the year. But Cave turns things dark and nasty instead with “The Fable of the Brown Ape,” in which it seems all of this rejoicing has split the seams of the earth and darkness is seeping out. It’s a subversive fable in which a farmer shows kindness and mercy to a serpent by feeding it “the milk of human kindness” until the villagers descend upon the farm in outrage. The brown ape, a witness to this violence, escapes and spends his days rattling his chains and singing about what he’s seen. Does the ape represent the artist, trying to justify the ways of the Farmer to man? Does the snake represent the devil, which God allows to torment his creation? Or does he in some way represent humanity, the undeserving wretches who have been given grace by a compassionate authority?
The Lyre of Orpheus steps out of religious terminology and into the language of mythology, where lovestruck Orpheus employs his music in a quest to save Eurydice from the clutches of evil.
In the title track, Orpheus plays till his fingers bleed, but his music turns out to be less than appreciated. When he plays, “Bunnies dash their brains out on the trees.” Hearing the music, God awakes from a deep deep sleep (“God was a major player in heaven”) and throws a hammer at Orpheus’s head, knocking him down a well (to, of course, the plays that rhymes with “well.”) Having arrived in the fiery furnace, Orpheus finds his beloved Eurydice uninterested in his musical salvation. “Dear Orpheus, if you play that f—-n’ thing down here / I’ll shove it up your oriface,” she snarls. Miserable, Orpheus stares into the abyss and says, “This one is for mama.”
The singer of “Breathless” basks in natural beauty that inspires him, even if he doesn’t believe his artistic responses will do any good. Flutes, acoustic guitars, and a sing-along chorus combine to exalt the Lord, the very One celebrated by the wind, the trees, the blood in his veins, the robins, the foxes, the rabbits—and even the fishes who jump up to take a look at nature from “the bubbling brook.” The singer sees suggestions of his Creator in this natural beauty: “Your face comes shining through … and I am breathless without you.”
In a mournful song for a dying world, “Babe, You Turn Me On,” Cave entangles affirmations of creation’s glory with admissions of its wickedness, as if the two are almost inseparable. He sings about the pointless savagery of the butcher bird, and how the song of the nightingale “raises up the ante.” With one hand he holds his lover’s arm, even as he gropes her crassly with the other, the music percolating cheerfully all along the way, sharpening the song’s dissonant thoughts. “You almost have leapt into the abyss,” he observes, “but found it only comes up to your knees.” Having given ourselves over to darkness, we find we cannot escape the painful reminder of the glories we are destroying. Again, he characterizes himself as an ape in pursuit of beauty: “I move stealthily from tree to tree / I shadow you for hours / I make like I’m a little deer / Grazing on the flowers.” And again he observes, “Everything is collapsing / All moral sense is gone. / It’s just history repeating itself … Crimson snow falls all about, carpeting the ground / Because everything is fallen, dear/ all rhyme and reason gone…”
“Easy Money” may be the most troubling song of all. The singer describes how difficult it is to come by the comforts cash affords, and prays for money the way drought-damned farmers pray for rain. When the singer shares these complaints with another man, the man responds with an expression of sympathy that quickly becomes an aggressive sexual advance.
In “Supernaturally,” Cave returns to full-volume rock and roll, describing his bleak existence stranded with the Eskimos, polar bears and penguins, “hunkered by the fire, knuckles dragging through the mire.” Describing himself once again as an ape, he’s begging for a truce, for peace, for something that once fulfilled him that is now drifting away. That something may very likely be his country, his fellow human beings, who are going against nature (“super naturally”). He sings:
You’re my north, my south, my east, my west
You are the girl that I love best
With an army of tanks bursting from your chest
I wave my little white flag at thee
Can you see it, babe?
This thunderstorm is followed by a quiet and meditative expression of his resilient hope, “Spell,” in which he determinedly intones:
The disc closes with a pair of hymn-like meditations, complete with a choral backdrop.
“Carry Me” is a waltz with a desperate prayer at its heart:
Who will lay down their hammer?
Who will put up their sword?
And pause to see
Of the Word
As in Abattoir Blues, Cave cannot allow himself in good conscience to end on a note of exaltation. He collapses once again into the horrors of human behavior, echoing God’s own lament in “O Children,” a prayer infused with regret and hope. Victims of atrocities are lined up to be “hosed down” and “inspected” before they’re put on the train. Is that sin being washed away? Or is the church merely following the model of the Nazis, forcing its “passengers” to conform to some false ideal, building a faux kingdom on earth, with a gospel train that won’t even leave the station? In the midst of these lines, “I once was blind, but now I see” is probably intended with painful irony. You get the sense he wishes he could be blind again. The album closes with a hint of dissonance, as if all of this “happiness” among the redeemed might be premature, as if the ugliness of humanity’s evil may produce too great a stinking cloud for anyone to catch a glimpse of a hopeful horizon.
In days as dark as these, when the people of the world hear nothing but speeches about goodwill, honor, peace, and freedom from their leaders, and yet hear the constant reports of lies, incompetence, failures, increasing hatred, violence, and chaos, these two albums play like the soundtrack to the age. Cave offers no false hopes, no touchy-feely assurances. He’s hurt, betrayed, angry, and desperate for the Gospel to prove true. And at the same time, he knows he is made of the same crude matter as those deceivers who lead innocents to the slaughter. This is as honest, as raw, and as powerful as rock and roll gets.
Five words or less: The two peaks of Cave’s career.