There’s a critical fervor surrounding Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus, the new double album reuniting Nick Cave with his Bad Seeds, over the idea that the godfather of the underworld has (finally) discovered a sensitive side. Citing the absence of deathly endings, and the offering of a few crass jokes—one, in particular, involving Orpheus and his orifice—reviewers conclude that Nick is lightening up in his old age: not so obsessed with fatality and ugly stuff.
Is Nick, a few years late, becoming a sensitive ’90s man? (I’m Australian, I can call him Nick, as long as I pronounce it “Nhiiyhck” and put my hand on my heart as I say it.) It’s true that even Abattoir Blues—the album’s more hardheaded half—is full of roguish moments, as when Nick asks his object of desire, “Do you feel what I feel, dear?” after waking up “with a frappuccino in my hand.” He goes on to declare that “mass extinction, darling, hypocrisy; these things are not good for me,” twisting his reputedly vicious character into a doddering, soft oldie. But here’s a question: Since when was a skinny man known for lavender silk shirts, who managed to pull off sickly romantic duos with both Kylie Minogue and PJ Harvey, not always a vulnerable old soul?
It’s not that there’s no notable progression from Nick’s earlier stuff. On The Lyre of Orpheus, the addictive frontman’s lecherous turns of phrase give way to a more refined, less aggressive poetry. Compare: from “Alice wakes; it is morning; she is yawning” (“Watching Alice,” 1988) to “It’s up in the morning and on the downs; little white clouds like gamboling lambs; And I am breathless over you.” In contrast to Abattoir‘s familiar, sometimes unbearable blocks of metal-heavy noise, Orpheus is driven by joggy rhythms and Celtic undertones, and the soaring voices of a gospel choir reach tones more joyous, more celebratory than said drug-addled luminary is known for.
But to my brand of Nick fan (if a sepia-toned poster existed, it’d be on my wall with a plum kiss on his egg-shaped head), it’s peculiar to pretend these moments are anything but characteristic: wry, slightly sarcastic, and yes, “sensitive.” The albums say everything Nick Cave was ever dragged, spittling and finger-pointing, onstage to say: “There she goes, my beautiful world; there she goes, my beautiful world; there she goes again.”