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REVIEW: Nick Cave & Warren Ellis – ‘Carnage’ (Goliath)


In a sentence:

Balancing beauty and meditation with violence and anger, ‘Carnage’ is a strange, near-flawless display of Nick Cave’s artistry.

At a time when catastrophe, upheaval and death are defining our lives, it’s not terribly surprising to see Nick Cave announcing new music. Throughout his forty-year career going right back to The Birthday Party, Cave has been rock’s foremost man of letters when it comes to grief, chaos and all things macabre. For more than half a decade, Cave’s work with The Bad Seeds has occupied the gentler end of his scale of emotion, culminating with 2019’s wonderful Ghosteen that essayed the mourning Cave experienced following the sudden death of his teenage son, and it’s been a long time since the old Cave of Murder Ballads and ‘Red Right Hand’ has been heard. But the global pandemic of 2020 spurred this old beast into life, with Cave exploring ideas solely with his trusted Bad Seeds lieutenant Warren Ellis on Carnage.

READ MORE: Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds albums – From Worst To Best

Speaking to the Red Hand Files about Carnage, Cave told his fans that“collective grief works in an eerily similar way to personal grief, with its dark confusion, deep uncertainty and loss of control”. It’s easy to see, then, that the event of the last twelve months should prove such an inspiration for him. Aside from references to the events of the last benighted twelve months, which are always intelligent yet oblique, Cave’s lyrics seem to be describing and evoking the forces of nature – implacable, immovable, often hostile but also dependable – and man’s helplessness in the face of them.

That impression is immediately given on the fantastic opening salvo ‘Hand Of God’, Ellis’s violin and an electronic beat hammering away at Cave’s softly played piano and menacing croon, evoking the kind of Biblical, Old Testament imagery that his very oldest work did. Aptly, it establishes a tone of unpredictability for Carnage that lasts for its entire 40-minute running length. The blood and thunder is most evident in ‘White Elephant’, referencing the Black Lives Matter protests of the summer (“A protester kneels on the neck of a statue / The statue says ‘I can’t breathe’ / The protester says ‘Now you know how it feels’ / And he kicks it into the sea”). It’s rare to hear such acidic, indignant anger in Cave’s delivery, and it makes for one of Carnage’s most immediately gratifying and noteworthy moments.

But for all that, this album doesn’t represent a kind of clean break, or the start of a new chapter, compared to recent Bad Seeds output. COVID, and the social atomization that it’s engendered, is of course the recurring muse for Carnage,with lyrics like “like the old days, darlin’ / I’m not coming back this time” (‘Old Time’) freighted with dread and significance. On the bare closer ‘Balcony Man’, set to the kind of serene, hazy synthesizer backdrop that characterised Ghosteen, Cave imbues something simple like “everything is ordinary / until it’s not” with great profundity in the context of lockdowns. The devastation of title track ‘Carnage’ could have come from that same album, so similar is the atmosphere.

The requiem for travel of ‘Albuquerque’ opens a much more serene second half, where sentiment is foregrounded over the innovative musical sketches that had been prioritised in the first half. The meditative ‘Lavender Fields’ is one of the most beautiful individual moments in Cave’s recent history, while ‘Shattered Ground’ addresses the aftermath of devastation and grief in atmospheric, cinematic terms.

That sense of melancholy, a kind of downcast but ultimately optimistic atmosphere of subdued hope, pervades Carnage. It’s the same atmosphere that hung over Ghosteen and Skeleton Tree before it, despite the most immediately noticeable signs that this might be some kind of return to Nick Cave the Possessed Preacher Man. Carnage is not a calculated attempt to strike a balance between the yin and yang of Cave’s artistry, but nevertheless it feels like one of the best albums in his lengthy career in which you’ll see both of those polar opposite skill sets utilised to such a great extent. (9/10) (Ed Biggs)

Listen to Carnage by Nick Cave & Warren Ellis here via Spotify, and tell us what you think below!

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