There are two kinds of songs the Bad Seeds do well, Nick Cave says: "Slow, sad and pathetic," and "extremely violent."
Over the dozen records that the world's reigning king of gothic punk has recorded with his group, jagged-edged hymns have naturally ebbed in and out of somber, piano-driven croons. But with "Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus," the latest from Australia's preeminent singer-poet, the more driving, menacing numbers have been separated from the slow and scurrilous in a double album that is not two halves of a whole so much as two distinct records released simultaneously and in one package.
Both records share the same gallows humor, the same mythic symbolism, heady intellectualism and narrative songwriting that have characterized each Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds release since the group rose from the ashes of his early-'80s noise band the Birthday Party to record its 1984 debut. Both records are backed by a gospel choir, but where "Abattoir Blues" is a sort of sweaty, punk-rock sermon, "The Lyre of Orpheus" is more of a stroll through church grounds.
"You can listen to one and have a total understanding of what we were doing, and listen to the next one a year in the future at your leisure, but you don't have to listen to them together," Cave said, in a telephone interview from his London home. "With a double album, you feel you have to listen to the whole thing through to the end to work out what the record's about, and I don't feel it's like that with this one."
Cave, 47, never intended to release a double album, which came out Tuesday on Mute. The idea, he said, made him "slightly squeamish." But when 10 days of recording yielded a bounty of good songs, "We just didn't have the heart to consign half of them to the junk pile."
Writing the record, he said, "I got to the 13-song mark, when usually my brain dies and my muse leaves me, but this time I just kind of pressed on."
Ironically, it may have been the departure of longtime Bad Seed guitarist Blixa Bargeld that opened the creative space for Cave and his band to branch out.
"On the one hand, I was very sad," Cave said, recalling the e-mail he received last year announcing Bargeld's plans to pursue other creative interests. "On the other hand, it's just the way my mind works, but it immediately opened up an opportunity for us to do something different."
In Bargeld's absence, multi-instrumentalist Mick Harvey took more of a center stage with guitar. Violinist Warren Ellis branched out to experiment with the mandolin and an Irish bouzouki. Former Gallon Drunk frontman James Johnston stepped in, adding inspired undercurrents of organ. And half a dozen members of the London Community Gospel Choir chimed in, amplifying the heavily religious undertones that are a Cave trademark.
The gospel singers added a "lightness and levity," Cave said, to music that was otherwise raw and driving. On "Hiding All Away," a grinding blues track with a Led Zeppelin "Kashmir" break, some in the group can even be heard laughing.
"We left it in because the song was heading toward its fairly grisly revelation, and I thought it benefited enormously," said Cave, referring to the uncomfortable laughter that follows a trio of lines involving a butcher, a cleaver and a "fist up your dress." "A lot of the stuff they were really hearing for the first time, and they were trying to sing to it, so the lyrics were revealing themselves to them. And they're from a Christian choir. At certain points, they were thinking, 'What are we actually singing on?' "
Juxtapositions of sex, love, religion and violence are the lifeblood of Cave's lyrics, which tend to explore the more base elements of human nature and how they sit -- or don't -- with man's spiritual capacities. Veering between skepticism and hope, hypocrisy and truth, they are oftentimes somber, frequently startling. His lyrics do not, however, reveal his personal character, despite the media's inclination to pair the two.
"It becomes a bore after a while," said Cave, a family man who is married with twin 4-year-olds and a teenage son from a previous relationship. "I don't think my music is depressing, personally, but I guess it is dark, if you want to use the choicest word. What I'm doing is going into the studio and creating stuff, and I can't see that as being anything other than a positive thing to do. It doesn't matter what the music's like. It's an act of creation, and to me an act of creation is a positive thing, so to me my records are always joyful because of that."
Cave's recent creations include the script for a film that started filming in Australia two weeks ago. "The Proposition," starring Danny Huston, Guy Pearce and Emily Watson, tells the story of a trio of Irish outlaws who fled to the Australian Outback in the 1880s to lead lives of criminality. Over the next several months, Cave will also pen its soundtrack.
No plans have been set to tour "Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus" beyond the few dates he's playing in the U.K. in early November. But already Cave is looking forward to his band's next recording project.
"Sometimes you make a record and it seems to close things down, and it's difficult to know where to go," he said. "But this one, the possibilities of where to go seem enormous."
Susan Carpenter can be reached at email@example.com.