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.
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.
"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