Love, death and religion: These have been common themes in Nick Cave's quarter-century-long career. He's been a junkie, a punk Baudelaire, the Black Crow King, a penitent man and countless others, but through it all, he's steeped himself in the most extreme iconography of these subjects. As part of the lineage of the soul-bared singer, like Robert Johnson and Johnny Cash, Cave can sound like he's clinging to Heaven even as all of Hell chases after him. Even hellfire and brimstone can dim after time, though, and Cave seemed lost after 1997's The Boatman's Call, fading into the land of polite indifference.
Abattoir Blues/The Lyre Of Orpheus, the new double album from Cave and the Bad Seeds, is not a return to old form. It is a stunning molding of a new form, with the matured songwriting talent evidenced on the last few tamer Bad Seeds records meeting the go-for-broke spirit of Cave's early work. The departure of longtime guitarist Blixa Bargeld has reinvigorated the band; the two albums contain some of the best songs Cave and Co. have ever written, some graced with nuance and beauty while others revel in bleak humor and grotesqueries. The double-album concept works well here, as Abattoir takes the darker, more uptempo material and Lyre resounds with the gentler, more pastoral songs. The albums are mercifully succinct as well: At only seventeen songs between them, they avoid the usual double-album bloat.
With all the chaos that has swirled him, it's amazing that Cave has even made it this far -- much less created a new high mark in his career. Though he no longer scrawls poetry with syringes of his own blood, Cave shows on Abattoir/ Lyre that love and other morbid things still burn in his heart -- and that getting older doesn't mean getting artistically stale.