The inimitable Nick Cave creates a synth-gospel masterpiece as he rounds out a trilogy of albums with Ghosteen amid a tragic loss.
Nick Cave has cemented his legendary status as a storyteller, poet, singer, and frontman by exorcising manic tales of depravity alongside the most touching piano ballads. Cave doesn’t pull punches, his expression is always raw and unwieldy, cutting to the bone. This untethered approach to expression has made him one of the most expressive and commanding performers of the modern age. Within a show, he can run the gamut from the blustery hurricane madness of ‘Tupelo’ to the pin-drop tranquility of ‘God Is in the House’ or ‘People Ain’t No Good’. With the backing of the brilliant Bad Seeds, Cave consistently puts on a transcendent show that leaves the audience simultaneously bewildered and more in touch with themselves than they were before they set foot in the theatre.
Nick’s recent works, though all thoughtfully executed, run a varied range of styles. 2008’s Dig Lazarus Dig was an uproarious, rockin’ record that served as a tribute to stories and storytelling itself. 2013’s Push The Sky Away, arguably the best of his current era, is a marriage between character-filled saunters through late-night European streets and the spiritual bridging between this world and the next. An ode to the divinity of common humanity. Most recently, 2016’s Skelton Tree overflowed with ache yet was frozen over by a certain detachment. This disassociation undoubtedly came from the grief that Cave was going through due to the loss of his 15-year old son from an accidental cliff fall during the recording sessions for the album.
Where does this lead Cave next? What are we to expect from his latest effort? As always, we can expect the consummate artist to put all of his pain and bereavement into his work but how will it manifest sonically? The title Ghosteen is an unveiled reference to his boy and his thoughts on what he has become and how their relationship has transformed considering this, the ultimate shift in state. The period between albums also saw the death of longtime pianist Conway Savage, adding yet another facet to his contemplations of death. Will Cave unleash fury? Sadness? Or will he be able to contextualize his emotions in the terms he has defined in his past spiritual works?
The album was premiered via full lyric livestream on YouTube with each line emerging out of coloured mist. The double album consists of an eight-song first side and a second side which features two long tracks bridged by a spoken word piece. The two albums are introduced as “The Children” and “Their Parents” respectively. Ghosteen serves as the final chapter in a trilogy that began with Push The Sky Away.
One of the things you notice the most upon the initial playthrough of the record is the minimal role that drums, guitar and even piano play in the soundscape of this album. Synthesizers are running the orchestra this time around filling the tracks with a warm mist to underscore Cave’s fever dream imagery. His voice also finds new territory after all these years. Fans are all familiar with his trademark baritone that hangs like an anchor, dredging up lost emotions from the seafloor, but on this record, Cave hits a breathtakingly vulnerable croon that hovers just below a falsetto. Ghosteen is a synth-gospel record. An attempt to use the latest technology available to help answer questions that we have carried with us for millennia. How do we deal with the loss of those closest to us and what becomes of them when they pass on.
A choir of mutated bells and pervasive synth brass sets a scene of wonder as the curtain pulls back on the opening track. We are immediately sonically matched with the image of a heavenly garden that graces the cover. Cave lets the mood set in for nearly a full minute before breaking the silence with his bassy prophet’s metre. He details the passage of generational lineage through love in a verse that flows seamlessly between modern rock n roll parable and the birthing of the human race in biblical times.
By three songs in we already get one of the collection’s most heart-wrenching moments with ‘Waiting For You’, a track that evokes The Boatman’s Call album and its tender piano ballads. In a career of intimate personal moments, this is the artist at his most exposed. The details of a drive down to the shore eerily evoke his son’s fate but it’s his agonizingly earnest cry “I’m just waiting for you to return!”, like a mother deer lamenting her dead calf, that hits like a dagger to the heart. Cave hits a pitch that he’s never quite found throughout his lengthy career. A sound that can only come from enduring the kind of tragedy that his family has.
With ‘Sunforest’, the Bad Seeds score a sublime celestial dream while Cave again paints on a lyrical canvas with contemplations on time and children, revisiting his visions of flame trees which he invoked on both ‘Higgs Boson Blues’ and ‘Skeleton Tree’ earlier in the album trilogy. He lets the scene set for two and a half minutes before joining in with the delicate but steady march of the piano. An angelic choral backing guides his ardent lifting to the heavens. A detached denouement bears lines of comfort:
“I am here
Look for me
In the sun”.
A high point in an album with many.
‘Galleon Ship’ features a call back to Push The Sky Away synths with a sea song that conjures Tolkien’s Grey Havens, the final trip of the heroes into the sunset. ‘Leviathan’ closes out side one again employing those woozy synths and dipping percussion to fully emulate the feeling of being at sea. The oceanic motif becomes a frequent touchstone on the album, Cave’s understandable obsession with the force that took his son. He ends the first side of the record repeating the mantra: “I love my baby and my baby loves me”.
The second side’s two opuses let the band stretch out even further to build fully orchestral soundscapes, reaching transcendent moments of divinity. Cave doesn’t crowd the space, entering only when the time is right. There is an intensity to this record but there is also great patience. Lines are delivered with care and a certain acquiescence. I think this is one of the ways in which this is more than an album but a true form of therapy. Cave has splayed his insides exposing his pain but he has also openly done the work to try to heal and soldier on. The record is not the initial stages of grief; anger and denial, but a depression leading to acceptance
The spoken word poem ‘Fireflies’ depersonalizes the human experience, re-contextualizing events in the vastness of the universe. Cave declares “We are photons released from a dying star/We are fireflies a child has trapped in a jar”. The cosmic perspective in times of crisis is tough to acknowledge but can help make sense of these circumstances for those who aren’t able to believe the tales of religion’s “beyond”.
The closer ‘Hollywood’ is the album’s most darkly arresting track. Cave now stares his own mortality head-on, pondering the worth of going on after such a devastating loss. The mood is cold and foreboding. The bass ominously churns out a relentless line, propelling us into the void. The snare drum, though softly played, has echoes of a march to the gallows. Uneasy strings and voices rush by like ghosts. Cave’s lyrics are utter brilliance. He slips from first-person narration to vivid imagery of the California coast, not bathed in the optimistic golden hue of so many other songs but steeped in the tempestuous nature of this cliff at the end of the world. A heavy storm blowing in from the Pacific. The track slips abruptly into its final movement. Deep synth bass overwhelms while the bass guitar holds a steady time. Cave recounts the Buddhist parable of Kisa in a falsetto that is at the same time both calm and alarming. The voice of knowingly facing terror head-on. The tale tells of a mother losing her child and that grief is felt by us all. No one on the planet is immune from loss. Caves final thoughts etch themselves in your mind, bringing this monumental trilogy to a close.
“Everybody’s losing someone
Everybody’s losing someone
It’s a long way to find peace of mind, peace of mind
It’s a long way to find peace of mind, peace of mind
And I’m just waiting now for my time to come
And I’m just waiting now for peace to come
For peace to come”
The trilogy that Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds began with Push The Sky Away and finish here with Ghosteen is a stunning achievement of both music and poetry. 45 years into his career and he is making some of his best music, pushing his voice and his art into ranges it has never been before. Though Push The Sky Away has the songs with the deeper hooks and more exciting tempos, Ghosteen’s accomplishment comes from its unmatched emotional depth. It’s not really to be thought of as a commodity to be sold but rather a tool for mental health and a guide through the most difficult times of our stay on this planet.
Some people might recoil from society after an instance like this and Cave did take time out of the spotlight to grieve but the ever-consummate artist is back on the road with not simply a tour but a talk/concert/Q&A where he once again reveals himself like the open book that he is. I will be going to see that show tonight and I will have the review in part 2 of our look at the enigmatic Nick Cave.