The difference between a Nick Cave death ballad and a Nick Cave love ballad? The death ballad is more lighthearted. Death is certain. Love is full of doubt. So don't let the Bryan Ferry-like croon that Cave affects in the opening "As I Sat Sadly by Her Side" fool you. After years of jaundiced journeys into darkness, he hasn't become a dewy-eyed romantic.
On the other hand, don't necessarily assume the title of the album (in stores Tuesday) is a sinister threat. Having thoroughly explored that side in 1996's "Murder Ballads," he turns to the promise of love-both earthly and everlasting-with a full flowering of the intimacy introduced on 1997's "The Boatman's Call."
The singing is the foremost development. Cave's discovery of a middle range to go with his best-known lower intonations and a heightened sense of melody add dimension and warmth to his often stark and chilly art-song cabaret, while an expanded Bad Seeds take the music from spartan to harrowing to enveloping.
But it's the words that make the impression: "Love Letter" may be the most vulnerable he's ever portrayed himself, while "Gates to the Garden" comes close to earnest faith. Of course, faith doesn't go unchallenged-though in "God Is in the House," his attack on fundamentalism is as narrow-minded and inelegant as his targets.
Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor) to four stars (excellent). The albums are already released unless otherwise noted.