Any aging rocker faces people questioning his credibility once the gray hair starts sprouting and wrinkles appear. Nick Cave isn't quite there yet, but then again, people have doubted the man's abilities since his earliest days fronting Australia's infamous post-punk confrontationists the Birthday Party.
Given his remarkable consistency with his band the Bad Seeds, however, Cave's output has proved difficult to characterize. For some, each album he releases is a sign of his waning abilities. To others, each album he records demonstrates a renewed vitality and vigor. Still others probably view the dark bard's flair for tattered Americana and fire-and-brimstone bombast fairly pretentious and faintly ridiculous.
Cave's latest release could prove particularly divisive. "Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus" marks Cave's first album without longtime Bad Seeds guitarist Blixa Bargeld, whose presence could always be counted on to provide a little extra edge. Second, the new record is really two: the (mostly) more aggressive drama of "Abattoir Blues" and the (mostly) hushed, haunting and sometimes even beautiful "Lyre of Orpheus," the material spread over a pair of separate discs that are packaged together.
In terms of songcraft and immediate accessibility, "The Lyre of Orpheus" is the disc that initially draws you back the most. Despite his imposing Old Testament vocal qualities, Cave has become quite the sensitive balladeer, and the likes of "Breathless" and the lascivious, Leonard Cohen-like "Babe, You Turn Me On" show that he's at last grown adept at composing love songs in which no one dies. The less sedate "Supernaturally" starts off with an exotic 6/8 flurry of hand claps before building to an anthemic chorus, interrupting the intimate vibe.
"Abattoir Blues," on the other hand, is where Cave demonstrates that even without Bargeld he's still capable of making one heck of a racket. The thunderous opener "Get Ready for Love" is as rousing a statement of purpose as Cave has ever recorded, all squalling guitar and pounding drums. Like its counterpart, "Abattoir Blues" also features a few atypically subdued pieces, including the hypnotic "Let the Bells Ring," that provide a much needed counterbalance to the harsher stuff. With that in mind, "Nature Boy" may very well be the poppiest, most melodic song Cave has composed.
Admittedly, a little bit of Nick Cave goes a long way, and two albums' worth of Nick Cave goes a little too far. Taken together the material feels a tad overwhelming, though it helps to get the rough stuff on "Abattoir Blues" over with first, because it features a smoother wind-down into the more subdued mood of "The Lyre of Orpheus." Additionally, while Cave has always borrowed from gospel, on both discs he actually enlists a gospel choir, and the extra wall of voices can push already dangerously overwrought songs like "Hiding All Away" (on "Abattoir") right over the top.
Unlike OutKast's willfully schizophrenic "Speakerboxxx/The Love Below," Cave's double-disc outlet really offers two sides of the same coin, the difference primarily measured in decibels. The guy's personality is so heavy that even when he cracks a joke -- in "The Lyre of Orpheus," Eurydice reacts to the titular instrument by threatening to "stick it up your orifice!" -- you're left waiting for the other shoe to drop and the deepest pits of Hell to once again come calling.