Friday, 31 August 2007

Top 100 Albums - #69: Abattoir Blues (2004)

The first appearance of post-punk maestros Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds comes in Abattoir Blues, the first half of their most recent double album, Abattoir Blues/The Lyre Of Orpheus (2004, counted as two albums).The mid-1990s had been a good time for the Bad Seeds. Albums like Murder Ballads (1996) and its follow-up The Boatman's Call (1997) had received very positive reviews, with the latter being pronounced their masterpiece. But after the release of a best-of compilation in 1998, the Bad Seeds took a prolongued break as Cave struggled to overcome his heroin addiction. After going cold turkey over two years, Cave restarted work in 2000, writing songs for what would become No More Shall We Part (2001). But while this received similar acclaim to The Boatman's Call, their next effort, entitled Nocturama (2003), was uniformally panned. After guitarist Blixa Bargeld quit after nearly 20 years, many questioned whether the band was still a viable creative force.

Abattoir Blues is the result of all the confusion and pandemonium caused by Nocturama and Blixa's departure. It is hardly surprising then that the band would come out guns blazing. 'Get Ready For Love' is a complete break from the minimalist introspection of The Boatman's Call and parts of The Good Son (1990). As soon as the band begins, all expecting gentle piano tinged with whispered lyrics are thrown backwards off their chairs. This is a fascinating fusion of gospel with rock 'n' roll, with Cave in stupendous form. Butr most impressive of all is the guitar. You would have thought that without Blixa, this would have left a gaping hole in the band's sound. Instead, his replacement, Mick Harvey, both leads the song and gives sufficent room for James Johnston's organ work. In a word - brilliant.

Having set the bar very high at the outset, 'Cannibal's Hymn' returns to more familiar ground. It's quieter, more piano-heavy and gives Cave the room he needs to reach the sepulchral apogees which make his work so compellingly unique. Unlike the last song, this also gives sufficient space for Martyn P. Casey's bass; sadly drowned out by the gospel choir before, here it murmurs and pounds under Cave's dark ramblings. This is the kind of song that would have been at home on Murder Ballads, and for that reasons it's another Cave godsend.

'Hiding All Away' sees the band slip up, and for the first time the cracks peep through. Instead of being driven by guitar or piano, we are 'treated' to this wierd interference or background noise, over which Cave attempts a rockability drawl coupled with a stripped back gospel choir. It feels chaotic, like a forgotten half-processed outtake. It's trying to mix elements of 'The Carny' with American rock, and it just doesn't work in doing it.

Those new to Cave might have been sufficiently deterred to switch off. Those who were either brave or sensible to continue will count their blessings with 'Messiah Ward'. Opening with some very amenable piano, this has the same catchy refrain as something like 'The Hammer Song', only with a less obtrusive sound. Cave has rightly thrown into the mix some sweeter females vocals to counter his own idiosyncratic delivery. And while the lyrics are not the easiest to see through, the general feel of the song is carried across more than sufficiently for most.

For fans of the first track, 'There She Goes, My Beautiful World' will be perceived as a worthy rival. And they may well have a point. Cave's songs are never the catchiest to say the least, but when he does attempt a 'rambling rocker' he gets the hooks right, or at least enough to keep the casual listener vaguely entertained. If 'Get Ready For Love' was the ideal opener for what become the Abattoir Blues tour, this would have been the ideal closer. Just as good is 'Nature Boy'. With the feel of a Bruce Springsteen number, this song about a girl and nature is very well executed, even if, as before, the lyrics are not so memorable as we might expect from Cave. But, as I say, this is musically accomplished enough to more than carry it to its conclusion.

The title track is a strange beast. Opening with heavy piano and drums, Cave comes in with the placid line Sun is high up in the sky, I'm in my car/ Drifting down into the abattoir. What begins like 'Brompton Oratory' tinged with extra desperation gives way to airy female vocals and such inane lines as I woke up this morning with a frappachino in my hand. And yet - it's not damn bad. With a little patience, you get the hang of the drums and female parts, and you leave feeling contented.

Up until now, there have only been hints of a dominant genre in the Bad Seeds' electicism, save on a couple of tracks. But 'Let The Bells Ring' sounds resolutely bluesy from the start, with that sweetly singing guitar reminsicent of someone like Steve Earle. But Cave isn't the type to cut a straight 12-bar piece of humdrum. Instead, he takes that Western sound and uses it as a prism for his fascination with American music. Soon we see hints of country music, a mandolin (?!) and bits which sound reminiscent of a Rumours-era Fleetwood Mac. On top of all this, Cave wails and moans as only he can. And that isn't bad either.

It's a shame, then, that the album ends on such an obvious whimper as 'Fable Of The Brown Ape'. Half-rambling Paul Simon ballad, half-storming metal tribute, this can't make it up its mind what it is. But the worst part is, because of this (and Cave's nerve-stretching vocal performance) the storyline is lost - well, not so much lost as rendered obsolete and superfluous. And this in turn renders this so pointless that you are glad when it all dries up.

To the seasoned Bad Seeds listener, Abattoir Blues could be described as 'neo-classical', in the same vein as David Bowie's later work. As I have covered, if you listen carefully enough there are hints, riffs and motifs culled or sampled from the band's finest work. Whether this was deliberate, to show that they could cut it without Blixa, or simply the result of working together for 20 years, we don't know. Either would seem to justify both this album's low position and Cave's decision to form Grinderman as a means of escape. Don't get me wrong, Abattoir Blues is not a bad album, either on its own or taken alongside the lesser, more mellow The Lyre Of Orpheus. However, this is not as compelling as the band was in its prime - dare I say it, when a certain guitarist was present. That is something for the band to ponder should they choose to work together again.

3.78 out of 5

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