The Guardian, 5 Oct 2019
In the first album wholly written since the death of his son, Cave reaches an extraordinary, sad and beautiful artistic evolution
WHAT IS the worst that can happen? And what happens after the worst does? Nick Cave, leader of the Bad Seeds, his band of over 30 years, has had to endure the triple bind of unimaginable tragedy, processing grief as a public figure and – more recently – the task of metabolising that suffering into some kind of continued artistic existence. Had Cave gone to ground indefinitely after the death of his teenage son Arthur in 2015, everyone would have understood.
Instead, he released an album in 2016, Skeleton Tree – a work digested by fans in the shadow of the event, but largely written before it – and an accompanying documentary, the visually lyrical One More Time With Feeling, which dealt with the aftermath of Arthur’s passing.
Last year, Cave did two more barely imaginable things: he started an ask-me-anything online forum called the Red Hand Files where he candidly discussed his own state of mind and handed out sage advice like the most sublime of agony uncles. Then Cave took the whole process on tour, embarking on an extraordinary series of solo dates in which he mixed song with questions from the audience. That this formerly forbidding bard of lust and brimstone, violence and tenderness, was trading in his artistic aloofness for a purgative communion marked one of the most remarkable evolutions in rock. “Nothing can go wrong, because everything has gone wrong,” he noted in Cardiff.
Now there is Ghosteen, a double album about a wandering spirit in which Cave invokes the gravitas of the late Leonard Cohen and the hoarse, harsh beauty of latterday Scott Walker. You might have thought bereavement might have unleashed a raging, vengeful beast within Cave – there is a cougar on this album, prowling the perimeter of a California compound, “with a terrible engine of wrath for a heart”, but it is the sole irruption here of the old, Old Testament Cave.
Listening to these 11 songs requires a ready supply of absorbent materials, some rehydration salts – it is so very sad – and perhaps a metaphysician on call. Quite apart from the devastation in its recurrent themes – Jesus in his mother’s arms, blackened butterflies, stairways to heaven, a malevolent, Pied Piper-like sun that steals children away – Ghosteen is an album about the very nature of what is real and what is not, and who is to judge.
Bright Horses, one of the most beautiful songs here, sets loose metaphorical horses of love with “manes full of fire” into an apocalyptic landscape. But then Cave reins them back in.
“And we’re all so sick and tired of seeing things as they are,” he aches, “The horses are just horses and their manes aren’t full of fire, and the fields are just fields and there ain’t no Lord.”
Cave, though, feels the continued presence of his son, “a little white shape dancing at the end of the world”. Cave assures us he’s coming home “on the 5.30 train”. Why not believe in ghosts? “There’s nothing wrong with loving something you can’t hold in your hand,” Cave muses, on the title track. And Arthur’s analogue, the Ghosteen, appears from time to time, to say: “I am beside you.”
As to where we go when we die, this career-long purveyor of religious imagery doesn’t tackle that directly. “We are here, and you are where you are,” he puts it movingly, on a song called Fireflies, the first sign of this new album, its lyrics released via the Red Hand Files a year ago.
The album’s vivid cover art, meanwhile, is a kitsch paradise by the artist Tom du Bois in which flamingos frolic and lions lie down with lambs, signalling a radical change of emotional landscape for the Bad Seeds. And yet Ghosteen completes a trilogy of records connected by their sound: Push the Sky Away (2013), Skeleton Tree and Ghosteen are all keening, subliminally orchestral works, swirling with electronic mood music; they supersede the rock format and solo piano of previous Bad Seeds or Cave solo works, underscoring the cornerstone presence of violinist Warren Ellis, who also provides revelatory backing vocals.
It takes a moment to decipher Cave’s explanation that the songs on Part One are the children, and the songs on Part Two are their parents. These are not two sets of songs sung from generational points of view, but rather, Ghosteen’s second half contains the seeds of its first: the songs of Part One may have been spun off from Part Two… [+]