Nick Cave never does anything by halves. When he sings about love, he sings of a force that crashes down from heaven. His less fortunate protagonists don't just lose their families; they stumble into blood-drenched rooms with lines from Milton scrawled on the walls. So it's almost remarkable that Cave has been able to confine his ambitions to single-album length until now. Cave's career dates back to The Birthday Party, a band as loud and hard-living as any produced by the punk era. He's never lost the ability to create a viscera-shaking sense of danger, but now that only represents one extreme, with quietly tapped piano ballads about faith and need positioned at the other. Cave has been working from the space between those poles since the late '80s without sounding like a man divided against himself. Whether singing God's praises or cursing a lover, or vice versa, he always sounds like he's in the service of the same muse.
The titles of Abattoir Blues and The Lyre Of Orpheus suggest that Cave's latest project with The Bad Seedstheir first without departed bandmate Blixa Bargeldsplits down the middle between quiet and loud material. That's more or less the case, but as usual, Cave lets the contrasts inform one another. Abattoir Blues' "There She Goes, My Beautiful World" turns a delicate sentiment into a rowdy rave-up. On The Lyre Of Orpheus, a lover gets compared to an atom bomb, the point driven home by a single, whispered "boom."
No tracks have the reckless ambition of Nocturama's 15-minute rant "Babe, I'm On Fire," and little rivals the emotional openness of Cave's career-best album, The Boatman's Call. Yet there's hardly any drop in quality over the discs' 17 tracks, and Cave maintains his ability to startle. He sounds filled with fire and brimstone as he fronts a gospel choir repeating the phrase "praise Him" on "Get Ready For Love," and he's just as comfortable recalling some fatherly wisdom that sounds like the albums' most heartfelt sentiment: "In the end it is beauty that is going to save the world." Even within so much theater and extremes of expression, that line sounds like it comes from the heart.