The knowledge of Nick Cave in wider society is something that has changed significantly over the last few years. His early years post, The Birthday Party, were filled with songs about murder, Christ, violence, love, longing and exquisite story telling. It seems like a lifetime ago where you could go and watch the band on their almost annual residency at Brixton Academy or go and watch them in a half empty field at Glastonbury when nobody else seemed to get it. With some serious exposure as a result of songs popping into culture in films like Harry Potter and then obviously the opening credits of Peaky Blinders, all of a sudden his place within day to day society significantly changed. As his popularity grew and he went from just being that bloke who did a song with Kylie once, he then had the worst of all tragedies a parent can have when in July 2015 his son Arthur passed away. Cave initially grieved in isolation, sensibly avoiding the media until 2016 where there was the double release of his film ‘Once Upon A Time‘ with feeling and the accompanying album ‘Skeleton Tree‘. As an album it was lyrically written largely prior to Arthur’s death, but the pain was literally pouring out of the album and the lyrics were also weirdly fitting (for example, “I called out to the sea but the echo comes back empty“). Following this was a tour where the club sizes of Brixton were eclipsed by sell out arena shows and Cave then began connecting with the people on a much grander, yet more personal scale.
Firstly there was the Red Hand Files, an online site where fans could send questions and it seemed that Cave was not scared to answer anything. This was then followed by an in conversation tour where he almost carried out nightly Q&A’s sprinkled with songs. Again there was no shying away from questions and it seemed that grief was inevitably the underlying theme of most of these events. This all led fans to wonder what would happen once new music was released and it what it would be like and when it would appear.
Then out of nowhere on the 23rd September, Issue #62 of the Red Hand Files was released with the question “When can we expect a new album?” – with a simple answer of “You can expect it next week” and at that point the concept of ‘Ghosteen’ was unveiled.
Assuming with this initial announcement that the ‘Ghosteen’ referred to Arthur, you were intimately aware that this was going to be Cave’s full exploration of grief through his most familiar form. It was also confirmed that ‘Ghosteen’ was the third part of a musical trilogy following ‘Push The Sky Away‘ and ‘Skeleton Tree‘. ‘Ghosteen’ musically, as a piece of work follows suit in the increasing use of loops and minimal, use of the band but where as previously the role of the Bad Seeds as a whole had been reduced it is now nothing short of sparse with Warren Ellis clearly taking the lead and, as a result, actually sounds closer to the Cave and Ellis’s soundtrack to ‘Wind River‘. Aside from a few moments where there is noticeable piano or bass, it’s an album of simple yet haunting sonic music. The simplicity of the music leaves a huge amount of space for Cave’s vocals which have the added tool of occasionally using falsetto to accent the story. By leaving space what you are exposed to is the lyrical content of the album and it hits you like a truck. As an album ‘Ghosteen’ offers love, loss, despair, sadness and hope all in massive doses. It is quite literally the most heartbreaking album I’ve ever heard, by the end of it you are left emotionally exhausted and in some sort of solidarity. Cave takes you on a ride and opens his heart for all to hear.
The sense of loss is constant and perhaps even when they are not obviously about his loss it is easy to make the connection yourself. The album opens with ‘Spinning Song‘ which starts as a a story of The King of Rock & Roll performing in Vegas, but then when you are then faced with thinking about the King’s passing you are locked into a repeated almost mantra of “I love you, I love you, I love you, peace will come, peace will come, peace will come in time, a time will come, a time will come, a time will come for us“. So that’s it. End of the first song and we are already well and truly in to sadness love and loss. In ‘Waiting For You‘ the line, “My soul is my anchor never asked to be freed, well sleep now take as long as you need“, is sung over a slow piano refrain which is just beyond heartbreaking.
‘Sun Forest‘, which is one of the highlights of the album, has the lines:
“A spiral of children climb up to the sun
Waving goodbye to you and goodbye to me
As the past pulls away and the future begins
I say goodbye to all that as the future rolls in
Like a wave like a wave
And the past with its savage undertow lets go“
Make no mistake, they may not have the same violent reckoning as some of his earlier work but the pain in this eclipses everything that he has written before.
As an album it is released as a double, with a different aim for the two parts with songs on the first part being listed as the children and the second are the parents. There is a structural shift with the songs on the second album. This is made of three songs, two of which are in excess of ten minutes and the song in the middle is a spoken word piece. It leaves the listener ending with a different sense even though stylistically the music is pretty similar. The title track opens the second album and is probably musically the most upbeat. When the chorus hits and the Ghosteen is dancing you can feel the connection and the joy. The rest of the song almost feels like a nursery rhyme connecting all parts of the family, even taking the three bears as a theme for its words and musically as quickly as you are taken to an uptempo place you are swiftly brought crashing back down again.
The albums final song ‘Hollywood‘ ends telling the Buddhist tale of Kisa, who becomes desperate for help and is told to find a mustard seed from someone who hasn’t experienced loss at which point she realises that everyone has experienced the pain that she is feeling. You can only assume that this has mirrored Caves loss and he is yearned to take the pain away before realising that he is not alone and that others have felt the same way and that, one assumes given The Red Hand Files and the In Conversation tour, that by realising that others have felt the same that as much as it doesn’t take the pain away it does make it easier to begin to eventually accept. As the album finished and Cave sings, “I’m just waiting for my peace to come“, you can only hope that by bearing his soul in such a way that this record has gone some way to find that peace.
It is by far a conventional album. You are never going to play isolated tracks and it’s not a piece of work that’s designed to pop up on someone’s playlist. This is a man working through his demons and much like Bowie did with ‘Black Star‘, finding the honesty and the ability to be able to do it in the most public way possible. It is not going to convert new fans, it is not going to appease the Red Right Handers, but for anyone who can give it the time that it needs you realise that its about as perfect as a piece of work can get.
It’s an album that through its journey is going to stamp on your heart, crush it, then beat it some more, but even with that somehow leave you with a sense of optimism and hope. It’s an album that almost slowly creeps into your subconscious and for me as a reviewer I genuinely couldn’t listen to anything else for days.