Album Review: Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – Ghosteen

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds’ debut album, ‘The First Born is Dead’, opened with the formidable track ‘Tupelo’, a roaring, thundering peon to the birth of Elvis Presley, born to be King during an apocalyptic storm: mythologizing the King of rock’n’roll, born in chaos, born to rule.

And now, decades later, ‘Ghosteen’ apocryphally begins with ‘Spinning Song’ referencing Presley and ‘Tupelo’. There’s no thunder now, but rather a reflection of this birth, this very song and the inevitable end of the journey:

Once there was a song, the song yearned to be sung
It was a spinning song about the king of rock’n’roll

The spinning song is the creation of myth. But now, the fire has burned out, the portentous birth now no more than a memory, but that memory has created permanency even after death. Deep sorrow and regret leavened by a glimmer of hope:

And I love you, and I love you, and I love you, and I love you
And I love you, and I love you, and I love you
Peace will come, a peace will come, a peace will come in time

It seemed at the time that ‘The Skeleton Tree’ was Cave’s homage to the passing of his son, whereas Cave himself made it clear at the time most of the album was written before his tragic death. It was an anticipation of loss rather than the reality. ‘Ghosteen’ is the fully realised encapsulation of grief. It is haunting, it is beautiful. Not since Sigur Ros has music alone left me so moved. But with the added lyrical expression of grief, this emotional pull becomes almost unbearable: giving us a glimpse and a taste of a private journey.

‘Bright Horses’, the second track is devastating. The protagonist rails against the creation of myths and cruel harshness of reality, yet seeks hope in the return of his baby:

Oh the train is coming, and I’m standing here to see
And it’s bringing my baby right back to me
Well there are some things that are hard to explain
But my baby’s coming home now, on the 5:30 train

And such is the core of this album. Redemption and hope, yearning and acceptance. Since ‘Skeleton Tree’ was released, Cave has toured the world in ‘Conversations with Nick Cave’ during which he commented (in Hobart) that people have two phases in their lives. The first phase represents self-centered assuredness and an even keel: the path they assume they will take that is the fruition of their own choices and desires. This phase can be ‘obliterated’ for some by external events beyond their control. This inevitably, leads to a second phase where, having had the steering wheel wrested from their hands, people are forced to change tack, change their values and the entire direction of their life. It can be transcendent, it can be destructive.

In Nick Cave, this has been expressed though his Red Hand Files and the tour: he has dealt with his grief by opening himself up to his audience. His lyrics, often by his own admission merely either stream of conscious or constructed tales have become more personal and reflective. The release of ‘Ghosteen’ was announced only a week ahead through a reply to a question in the Red Hand Files: his direct message to his fans.

‘Ghosteen’ is the perfect apotheosis of the Bad Seed vehicle to deliver this – with the clear influence of Warren Ellis who has antithetically contributed so much to the instrumentation by stripping most of it away, leaving a piano driven frame over which the most delicate of noises interweave under Cave’s extraordinary vocals. His range is incredible and it is emotionally raw and exposed.

‘Ghosteen’ is a double album and Cave has said that the first half is the child and the second, the parent. Indeed, whereas the first half deals with grief and hope: the potential of life and the crashing despair of the reality, the second half feels like a resolution, an acceptance. It consist of three long pieces which reintroduce more of the rhythm section – bass and drums.

Title track ‘Ghosteen’ opens with this resolution:

This world is beautiful
Held within its stars
I keep it in my heart
The stars are your eyes
I loved them right from the start
A world so beautiful
And I keep it in my heart

Spoken word ‘Fireflies’ has to me one of the most poignant lines that captures Cave’s uncertain faith and his thoughts on the unknowing of the future of the departed:

We are fireflies pulsing dimly in the dark
We are here and you are where you are
We are here and you are where you are

It is remarkable that Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds have produced some of their best music so late in their career (even after the departure of Mick Harvey). ‘Dig Lazarus, Dig’ stands high above the rest of Phase 1: the angry, the vengeful story teller on the pulpit, bringing down hail and brimstone on the enthralled and cowering audience. ‘Ghosteen’ perfects Phase 2 (the seeds of which can be found in ‘Push the Sky Away’) where the preacher has been felled involuntarily from the pulpit and rejoins the masses in a collective, shared experience of the vicissitudes of life.

This album is a masterpiece. It’s not any easy listen, it is melodious but not full of melody or easily identifiable structure, it is feeling and sense encapsulated in music that floats and does not thunder like a rock’n’roll song. There is, as such, little spine but a lot of heart.

The album is available now though all the normal channels.

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