Nick Cave and Warren Ellis find themselves amid Carnage.
Last Thursday, Nick Cave and Warren Ellis dropped their first official non-soundtrack album collaboration. The (sort of) surprise release was teased via Cave’s Q&A blog The Red Hand Files back in January. It’s the first release of wholly new material from Cave since 2019’s Ghosteen with The Bad Seeds and follows his Live from Alexandra Palace performance Idiot Prayer recorded last year during the lockdown. In many ways, the new album with Ellis is a composite of these two recent projects. Without the full band to back him up, the songs are piano and synth focussed with Ellis’ violin added liberally for dramatic effect. The neo-gospel, Sunday service vibe that directed much of Ghosteen remains. Cave presides as the preacher delineating tales of sins, sinners, and salvation as he has through much of his career. The record flaunts their eccentricities, making it perfect fodder for the already converted fanatics, yet unlikely to bring vast new swaths into the fold. Leave that work to one of his more endearing classics like ‘Into My Arms’ or the sly Peaky Blinders theme, ‘Red Right Hand’.
For the initiated Cave obsessives, Carnage expands on the atmospheric sonics of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ soundtrack work while denoting a marked transition away from the thematic material of the recent trilogy of Push the Sky Away (2013), Skeleton Tree (2016), and Ghosteen (2019). The death of Cave’s 15-year-old son during the making of Skeleton Tree weighed heavily on its recording and much of Ghosteen’s writing felt intensely personal with many extrapolations into the afterlife of his child. Carnage marks a returned focus on laying out the stories like an observing author. Though grief is never far from this figure who has become a kind of guide for it, its talons are somewhat less entrenched in this release. New badass gunslinger anthems and delicate reflections on the world standing still this past year. The record is one of many that will emerge in the months to come which are wholly byproducts of letting creativity run amok without the humbling check of the live performance proving ground. At times overly-indulgent but surely forging new ground without being beholden to the direct feedback of a concert audience.
Woozy strings that coalesce with synths like rushing tributaries connecting to spill into the ocean. These textures run like a ribbon through the album. The opener ‘Hand of God’s delicate piano and voice intro is washed away by this oceanic undertow of Ellis’ instrumentation. A throbbing pulse keeps the song floating along at a good clip. Cave’s baritone swells in the verses and erupts into a mournful falsetto in the uneasy chorus. His lyrics have biblical overtones without overt references. This is a more ancient, universal spiritual connection. Like pilgrims performing time-honoured rituals on the banks of the Ganges.
The Ellis dive-bombs continue through into ‘Old Time’. The textures shimmer with a hallucinatory glow. A filtered breakbeat mingles with subtly wavering bass. The title track retains the vibe of Ghosteen. This sorrowful fall-off between minor chords mixed with a nursery rhyme-like chiming of bells on top. ‘White Elephant’ is the record’s most compelling piece. Set to a clocklike clanging drum beat and a recurring vacuous synth figure, Cave proceeds to draw us into a wild fever dream touching on the pursuits of a poacher, the mixed imagery of protestor and persecutor, sexualized artworks coming to life, cornered threats with an elephant gun. The ominous Moog synth bass propels it all forward with an inescapable pressure. A crescendo crests mid-song that gives way to a major lift, shifting gears into gospel splendour. A feat of unbridled eccentricity that few could pull off like Cave and Ellis.
The album’s most obvious nod to the last year living under the pandemic is the mid-album ballad ‘Albuquerque’. Angelic synths and deeply wistful piano underscore a piece dedicated to the immobilization this lockdown has put us all through. This track would fit right alongside ‘Waiting For You’ or ‘Galleon Ship’ on Ghosteen. Dramatic, ornate, billowing.
“We won’t get to Amsterdam
Or that lake in Africa, darling
And we won’t get to anywhere
Anytime this year, darling
We won’t get to anywhere, darling
Anytime this year
We won’t get to anywhere, darling
Unless I dream you there
We won’t get to Albuquerque
Anytime this year”
‘Lavender Fields’ continues the classical pomp with Cave finding a certain positive vein that has eluded his work for several albums while processing the grief of his son’s death. Another step forward for the affected artist. ‘Shattered Ground’ sits on a cloud of pads giving the singer a nebulous, rhythmless loft on which to float his poetic musings. The closer ‘Balcony Man’ ties the record together with a suspensefully whispered-over piano piece. The track that evokes the solitude of Idiot Prayer is eventually met with Ellis’s warm legato violin and a morning sun chorale. The crescendo builds to deliver the album’s final words at its climax. The music pulls away to allow Cave to proclaim the Joker-invoking last sentiment: “what doesn’t kill you just makes you…crazier”.
Carnage is a solid step forward for Cave. He and Ellis forge new sonic territory while also exorcising some leftover material left in the aftermath of Ghosteen. We once again hear Cave take on the role of the village bard. It’s not to the level of his notorious Murder Ballads album but it gleans the possibility of a full return on the next Bad Seeds album. Hopefully, we are in line for a new one of those as well in the near future. As rich and gorgeous as Cave and Ellis’s work is, the true power of Cave’s art comes through when he is backed by his stellar band of stalwarts.