Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds 

Abattoir Blues/Lyre of Orpheus

Nick Cave has been exploring the darker regions of the human experience since the late '70s -- first influenced by Australian underground artists such as the Saints, then striking out himself with the brooding Birthday Party, and finally convening the Bad Seeds in the mid-'80s. Armed with mass vocal histrionics, languid barrelhouse piano, and atonal guitar, Cave and Co. changed the way pop music hopes to be, consistently crafting new and challenging aural pieces that sit side by side with the atonal wonders of the Velvet Underground and all things American Gothic. And while 1997's The Boatman's Call signaled a change -- the thunderous din of yore replaced by introspective piano ballads and sparse instrumentation -- 2003's Nocturama saw him reevaluate those reserved ways and trigger a fiery return to the angry days of the Seeds' youth.

Abattoir Blues, the first of this double-disc set, splits the difference and lunges into the gospel-infused romp of "Get Ready for Love." Accompanied by the London Community Gospel Choir, Pastor Nick further explores his Anglican past and famously tormented soul, like a preacher still addicted to cigarettes. The choir's ethereal soul fits Cave's brooding howl well, underscoring the religious theme present throughout his career.

But it's The Lyre of Orpheus that, for good or for ill, resonates here. Cave, always a fan of the distorted narrative, creates a modern retelling of the Greek myth, sans the mirth. The repetitive arrangements suggest Nocturama's writhing coup de grâce "Babe, I'm on Fire," but there's little fire this time. For instance, "Breathless" features a drunken flute intro that languidly glides into the simple (yet effective) pop conventions that follow. Cave effectively and effusively uses lyrics to capture the contradictions of carnal and spiritual existence, but the music lacks that drama. Still, while Abattoir and Lyre might not be the best place to begin with his prolific career, this isn't a bad place to end up.

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