Listen to this track by gothically-inclined and supremely literate songwriter Nick Cave and his stalwart backing band The Bad Seeds. It’s “Breathless”, a single as taken from one-half of the 2004 double LP, or really a two albums in one package, Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus.
The two records were designed to be separate listening experiences, even if they were packaged as a unit. Abattoir Blues is the crunchy rock record, full of snarling fire and brimstone, and relying on Cave’s well-known and unique ability to deliver his story-songs with the intensity of a nineteenth century traveling preacher with the devil at his heels. The Lyre of Orpheus is the kinder, gentler statement of the two, characterized by a kind of ecstatic poetic vision rooted in the English Romantic tradition. This song, a single released as a double A-side with “There She Goes My Beautiful World” in November of 2004, is a sterling representation of that latter approach.
Yet, Cave’s common thread that blurs the lines between the erotic and the sacred is well in place on Lyre of Orpheus, just as it is on Abattoir Blues. This song covers these themes pretty soundly, too.
Cave’s reasons for releasing what he intended to be a two-record set, rather than a standard double album was largely down to his own listening habits of never sitting through a double. Therefore, it made sense to him to split up the record into two discs, and therefore split up the level of commitment asked of the listener. Double records are hard to get right. So, why not make each disc distinct? I’m surprised more artists (other than Outkast!) don’t consider this route instead of the traditional double album under a single title. In addition to these practical considerations, the release of these two records at the same time and in the same package soundly underscores the thematic push and pull in Cave’s work in general between the grotesque and the beautiful, the damaged and the divine. These kinds of dualities are what have always made Cave’s work so compelling.
This song finds Cave in a heightened and even worshipful state, almost overwhelmed by a verdant and idealized natural world and the forces it represents. This is clearly a love song, and one rooted in literary traditions which are marked by vivid spirituality as tied to the detailed beauty and terror of the natural world — yet another duality! It’s replete with happy hooded bluebells bowing and predatory foxes chasing rabbits who must take refuge underground — for they are breathless without you.
There’s a point. Who is this song about, exactly? A lover? A god? With Cave, the demarcation between the two is arbitrary. Like Leonard Cohen before him, Cave isn’t really interested in the difference, if there even is one. His interest lies in how these two streams of human experience intersect and define each other. This could be a hymn to the divine or a paean to a lover. On this tune, the experience of love is the same in any case; overwhelming, humbling, and maybe potentially fatal, too.
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds is an active band today. Along with Cave’s other musical pursuits, you can learn more about them at nickcave.com.
And for more on the making of, and the approach to Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus, read this interview in which Cave talks about his writing process, and about the departure of long-time Bad Seed Blixa Bargeld who left the band before these albums were recorded.