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One Track Mind: Nick Cave – “The Lyre of Orpheus”

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I finally got around to listening to Tom Waits' sprawling odds-and-ends collection Orphans and it occurred to me that Australian-born/England-residing singer-songwriter Nick Cave has a lot of similarities to Waits. Both have scary sounding voices (Waits a whiskey scarred growl and Cave a deep baritone), write detailed narratives delving in frequently dark themes like death, love and religion, often involving lowlife, flawed characters. Furthermore, both have dabbled into acting and writing (Waits, playwriting; Cave, novels).

But while Waits music evolved mainly from piano based bar songs, Cave's pedigree is rooted in free-for-all post punk. And even now, his Bad Seeds will bring the sounds of Hell to the fore at times. What sets Cave's music well above and beyond where he started out is his ability to use advanced narrative style writing, lean unorthodox arrangements and expressive vocals…and use these tools together smartly to create the entire song. Much as Waits does.nick_cave

A couple of years ago, Cave decided to release two decidedly different albums simultaneously, but packaged together. Abattoir Blues is the harsh punk rocker, while The Lyre of Orpheus is a much more subdued affair. That said, Cave doesn't back away from his morbid obsessions for Orpheus …not much, anyway…just because the music is presented without loud electric guitar squalls. Indeed, he often gets even more creative in expressing his vision of depravity, out of necessity.

The title track that launches The Lyre of Orpheus is a prime example of that creativity. The central character in the song is a mythical figure from ancient Greece, as well as his wife Eurydice, but Cave rewrites the myth into something that sounds like a lost chapter out of Homer's Odyssey. The musical backdrop for this updated Greek legend could have been a page out of Waits' eighties playbook. Instead of screaming guitars, imagine a bouzouki, bass, and primal, circular drums; other than the choir for the "Oh Momma" chorus, this is the entire canvas on which Cave paints his sick tale.

Cave narrates this story of an ordinary guy who invents an instrument that makes a irresistibly beautiful sound to him, but causes horrible deaths to every other living creature within earshot. Through the story, Cave teases his listeners with sly lines like:

Orpheus looked at his instrument
And he gave the wire a pluck
He heard a sound so beautiful
He gasped and said O my God

Later, he uses understatement to describe Orpheus getting himself into deep doo-doo as he deadpans:

He woke up God from a deep, deep sleep
God was a major player in heaven

But his lyrics would have little impact if his deep vocal delivery didn't convey some devilish pleasure in giving his audience the creeps and on that score he nails it. You'll be hanging on every verse nonetheless, because Cave is such a good storyteller.

Maybe calling Nick Cave the Australian Tom Waits is not quite accurate. The Aussie Vincent Price is probably more like it.

Listen: Nick Cave "The Lyre of Orpheus"

"One Track Mind" is a weekly drool over a single song selected on a whim and a short thesis on why you should be drooling over it, too. The sample track is ripped at a low bit rate and is available for only a few days

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  • Daniel Woolstencroft

    I had the same Cave Waits revelation the other night, as I listened to Orphans. Sometimes they sound remarkably alike.

    I love the “major player in heaven” line, but strangely Cave left it out the last time I saw him live.

    And now you’ve made me turn off Warren Zevon, and put some Cave on. Well, right after “Run Straight Down”.

  • Mark Saleski

    this is a great song and, indeed, a great album.

    in fact, it’s the only Cave record i own. not sure why either. the Seeds stuff just never resonated with me…but then i read so much stuff about this album that curiosity got me to pick it up.

    holy crap. i’ve gotta start makin’ up for lost time with this guy.

  • zingzing

    mark–if you really want to get into nick cave, one of your first purchases should be “hits” by the birthday party. remarkable stuff. cave at his most violent.

    it’s unusual, but the “hits” package for them is just about all you need. it’s very well-chosen.

    then get everything the man did 86-92. then get everything this decade. then go back and find the rest.

  • Mark Saleski

    i’ve decided to work my way backword. so next up (i think) is Nocturama

  • zingzing

    ach! skip nocturama for now!

    get the one before… can’t remember the name.

  • zingzing

    “no more shall we part”

  • Mark Saleski

    really? i’ve read that Nocturama is really good. hmmm.

  • zingzing

    nocturama is a bit of a misstep i think. it’s got some really good stuff on it… like “babe, i’m on fire…”

    but it’s kinda boring. he didn’t really grow or change on that one, and he always grows and changes…

    get it if you want, but it might turn you off before you can get to the really prime shit.