Brooding Cave packs double whammy

Few artists can lay claim to possession of the same bizarre lyrical muses that guide Nick Cave.

How many musicians, for example, pen songs featuring dinner scenes with cannibals ("Cannibal's Hymn"), a cranky, sleep-deprived, hammer-throwing God ("The Lyre of Orpheus") and a tribute to Johnny Cash ("Let The Bells Ring") all on the same album?

Exactly.

To be fair, Cave and The Bad Seeds, together since 1984, didn't cram all that imagery and then some into one album. Instead, they recorded Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus, two entirely non-parallel entities in both style and substance, and then made the discs available in a single package.

The result finds the Australian-born Cave, a founding member of long-disbanded gothic-punk pioneers The Birthday Party, driving his Bad Seeds to previously uncharted heights.

Cave has crafted an image of brooding gloom for himself thanks to a penchant for all things morose, primarily death and violence, in his writing. But he quickly reveals his other fixations — religion and God — on "Get Ready For Love," Abattoir's full-throttle opening onslaught.

On the opener, Cave's moody baritone implores listeners to "Get Ready For Love" while the angelic voices of the London Community Gospel Choir soar with a response of "Praise Him!" The song's vocal interplay and its un-churchlike wall of sound — born of the chaotic guitar playing of Bad Seed Mick Harvey and a mercilessly beaten drum kit — join forces to create one jaw-dropping first cut.

Cave and The Bad Seeds, perfectly utilized choir in tow, doesn't abandon the rock 'n' roll tone set by "Get Ready For Love" throughout the rest of Abattoir. They deliver downright funky blues on "Hiding All Away," and the track gains even more life from Cave's half-crazed vocal spasms and darkly comedic lyrics — "You approached a high court judge/ You thought he'd be on the level/ He wrapped a rag around your face/ And beat you with his gavel."

"There She Goes, My Beautiful World," a lushly arranged plea for world-moving genius that speaks of Karl Marx and St. John of the Cross, and breezy love song "Nature Boy," the album's melodic single, also rise to the fore in an incredible opening act.

Perhaps knowing the nine-track Abattoir would be difficult to follow, Cave and The Bad Seeds don't bother. The Lyre of Orpheus is Abattoir's perfectly complementary, more melodic cousin.

Cave and the Bad Seeds reign in the intensity on Lyre, giving the still-powerful songs a bit more room with which to breathe. Cave, a genius when it comes to histrionics, utilizes the newfound wiggle room to take Lyre's title-track — a twisted tale of mythological destruction — to its mischievous climax.

"Breathless" is a pure love song. It's a soundtrack for young lovers skipping through a field, daisies in hand, as Cave jauntily sings over acoustic guitar runs and woodwinds: "The sky of daytime dies away/And all the earthly things they stop to play/For we are all breathless without you." Surprisingly, he does so without a trace of sarcasm.

The lively "Supernaturally," with its irresistible "Hey! Ho!" chorus, and gripping narrative — "I chase you up and down the stairs/ Under tables and over chairs/ I reach out and I touch your hair/ And it cuts me like a knife" — stands as the eight-song Lyre's best. It sounds like it belongs on Abattoir, but that's an admittedly minor gripe.

Cave and The Bad Seeds has delivered not one, but two career benchmarks — a difficult task for most bands to achieve in a lifetime, let alone the 16 days it took to record Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus. With that kind of creative output it's possible these longtime song crafters may just be hitting their creative stride.

Or, to self-servingly spin Cave's Lyre-ending "O Children" — "We're happy, Ma, we're having fun/ And the train ain't even left the station."

Grade: A