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REVIEW: Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – ‘Ghosteen’ (Bad Seed Ltd.)


In a sentence:

Expressed with profound humanity, ‘Ghosteen’ is the most beautiful music that Nick Cave has ever made.

When the last Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds album Skeleton Tree appeared in late 2016, just over 15 months after the horrifying death of his teenage son Arthur, everybody immediately analysed the record and its lyrics in the context of grief. Despite Cave’s insistence that the songs were almost all written before his son’s passing, it was impossible not to detect these elements in the album’s stark and mournful disposition. But perhaps it’s Ghosteen, a curiously structured double-LP, that more explicitly explores these themes and more deserving of this analysis.

According to Cave, Ghosteen constitutes the final part of a loose trilogy of records that began with 2013’s Push The Sky Away. The eight tracks on the first half are “the children” of the album, while the two much longer tracks on the second, connected by a spoken-word bridging track, are “the parents”. His wife Susie Bick claimed several months ago that this new material was the result of a bout of autumn flu, and the succession of “fever dreams” they triggered.

All of this makes for an immensely intricate album to unpack, requiring several deep dives to fully understand, but even a cursory first inspection reveals Ghosteen to be a more detailed and more considered study of grief than the raw, stark desolation of Skeleton Tree. It’s also a quest for meaning, about what it means to make an emotional and sincere connection in a world that sees individuals more atomised and alienated than at any point in human history. You can also see it as the result of Cave’s Red Hand Files project, one which has brought down the barriers between audience and performer in a way that a mere social media presence simply couldn’t have done and has allowed him to connect on a more personal level. Ghosteen seems to reflect that feeling of community – while sadness and grief is ever-present, its overarching mood is ultimately one of solace and comfort, where strength derives precisely from the fact that it’s exposing its author’s vulnerability, rather than the numbed chaos of its predecessor.

While Ghosteen is certainly centred primarily around Cave’s lyrics – the main attraction of any Bad Seeds album – the musical backdrop in which they’re contextualised is equally central to the album’s feeling of warmth and understanding. Warren Ellis, since he became Cave’s chief musical collaborator after long-term lieutenant Mick Harvey departed a decade ago, is yet again the key mover in explaining the surreal beauty of latter-day Bad Seeds albums. Here, his gauzy analogue synthesisers provide a fantastical backdrop for Cave’s dream logic and repeating themes of love, loss and uneasy resolution. This golden, lush sonic palette is the aural equivalent of the album’s colourful artwork of animals in forest clearing and bathed in a heavenly aura – itself about as far away from the blood-and-thunder of a typical Bad Seeds album as it’s possible to get – and the setting for his most minimalistic and fantastical work ever.

Immediately on the album’s opener ‘Spinning Song’, we get typical Bad Seeds imagery of Elvis travelling to Vegas, but they’re used as a launchpad for something more fantastical, Cave’s lyrics telescoping in on details in a stream of fairy-tale-like consciousness (In the nest was a bird, the bird had a wing / The wing had a feather, spin the feather and sing the wind”). Cave’s commanding baritone delivers the appropriate gravitas, but on a few occasions he raises himself into a beautiful falsetto that he’s rarely utilised in his career so far. When he croons “peace will come”, he sounds both weighed down and buoyed up, tormented and becalmed.

The first half of Ghosteen is similarly intimate and haunting throughout, from the weightless piano devotional ‘Waiting For You’ to the oblique ‘Night Raid’ with its muffled bells and chimes. ‘Sun Forest’ sounds like it’s the result of a painstaking process of working through hard emotions, reaching something approaching closure even if there’s no sense or reason to come to terms with, despite its apocalyptic imagery (“the burning horses and the flaming trees / As a spiral of children climb up to the sun”). Queasy synths and lurching bass are set against restful ambience on ‘Galleon Ship’, the titular vessel a metaphor for grief as it sets off “searching for the other side”.

On ‘Bright Horses’, possibly the most conventional moment on the album in terms of anything approaching radio play, Ghosteen’s themes of coping with loss are most apparent. “Horses are just horses and their manes aren’t full of fire / The fields are just fields, and there ain’t no Lord / And everyone is hidden, and everyone is cruel / And there’s no shortage of tyrants, and no shortage of fools / And the little white shape dancing at the end of the hall / Is just a wish that time can’t dissolve at all.” Everything is expressed in negatives – there’s simply no other way of rationalising emotions on this scale – yet somehow, human beings carry on and life continues.

The themes of Cave’s personal experience are obvious and littered throughout the record, despite never being stated explicitly – he’s far too clever a lyricist for that. Instead, there are signpost lyrics like “I am beside you / look for me” and “sometimes it’s better not to say anything”, and repetitions of phrases like “peace” and return” that are both universally applicable for any listener but which can only be about one thing, if you know the story behind Ghosteen.

The second half of the album requires much more attention, its two lengthy compositions slowly shifting and mutating over their run-time. The title track, which commences the half-hour suite, begins with lightly cinematic orchestration before swelling into a fantasia of hallucinatory imagery, as Nick Cave finally begins to describe what ‘Ghosteen’ is – less a singular figure, more of a constant presence, or an all-encompassing aura or energy. “The past with its fierce undertow will never let us go”, Cave intones with great poignancy in its later stage as the piece winds down.

After the gravitas of ‘Fireflies’, the tremulous ‘Hollywood’ begins, with little more than a rumble of bass guitar, as Cave essays a full-on fever dream of Americana, replete with themes of entrapment and escape. Thomas Wydler’s drums make their first appearance at the 5:30 mark (nearly a full hour into the whole album) and even then are little more than the faintest, stuttering patter. “I’m just waiting now, for peace to come”, Cave keens in his falsetto, before later relaying the Buddhist legend of Kisa Gotami. Her child falls sick and passes away – Gautama Buddha tells her he can restore the infant’s life if she is able to bring him a mustard seed from a house where no one had died. Of course, no such place exists, leaving Kisa to accept the tragedy before entering the first stage of enlightenment. The meaning is allegorical but clear – grief is irreversible, but there’s a pathway to come to terms with it, and one that Cave is himself treading. “Everybody’s losing someone,” he says as Ghosteen’s final words. “It’s a long way to find peace of mind.”

Viewed in the context of the totality of his career, Ghosteen is the latest astonishing achievement in a purple patch of form that’s lasted for 15 years now, spanning back to the magnificent 2004 double album Abbatoir Blues / The Lyre Of Orpheus and including the two Grinderman records. At the age of 62, Nick Cave is making the most beautiful music of his career (a phrase like ‘best’ is kind of meaningless when thinking about such a long and varied discography) and doesn’t sound like he’s about to stop any time soon. But in and of itself, Ghosteen is a statement of the most profound humanity and deep, multi-faceted meaning, and one that it’s virtually impossible to imagine anybody else making in pop music history, let alone 2019. (10/10) (Ed Biggs)

Listen to Ghosteen by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds here via Spotify, and tell us what you think below!

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