Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds ‘Ghosteen’ – Review

10 Nov

Death has been a topic in Nick Cave’s art since the very beginning; from his most famous song, ‘The Mercy Seat’, to his most famous album, ‘Murder Ballads’. There has always been a performative element to his writing on the subject and a sense that he was somewhat flaunting tragedy in the name of art. But now the artless reality of his son’s awful passing has awakened a new, more fully realised perspective. ‘For most of my life I felt a strange gravitational pull toward an undisclosed traumatic event, that could only be described as a dreadful yearning, and I found it eventually in my son’s death – something that both destroyed me and ultimately defined me’. This album is an abstract, emotionally forthright exploration of how it feels to really lose and go on living.

‘Ghosteen’ is a fever dream of longing. Over two discs, Cave deep dives in to his grief, transforming it in to something magical, even mythical, and trippy. Cave is working towards a freedom from the heaviness of loss, as if he is trying to proceed upwards as a means of coping with all that is weighing him down. To have created something this weightless, in the face of overwhelming sadness, is not the least of his accomplishments.

He partly achieves this feeling through the use of spacious synth soundscapes. Here grief manifests in wide open, swirling plains. These songs aren’t tethered to beats or traditional verse-chorus predictabilities and so you lose sense of time and reality.  Of course grief itself is much like this, in its ability to up-end and disorient, and ultimately that’s why ‘Ghosteen’ has to be considered a successful evocation of the mourning process.

In a note published on his website, Cave said “in time we learn to absorb our loss, as a form of armouring, and that it can become our strength. That the very thing we thought would destroy us, now becomes a fierce source of creative power, as if our departed are breathing an essential energy through us, drawn from a wellspring deep within the trauma itself.” There is evident truth in this statement. But to call ‘Ghosteen’ an unprecedented triumph would be to ignore a decade of rejuvenated creativity. ‘Ghosteen’ is the spiritual conclusion to a trilogy that began with ‘Push the Sky Away’, a more daring if less affecting creation, and continued with 2016’s haunting ‘Skeleton Tree’. On ‘Ghosteen’ he simply pulls his ideas to their logical end points.

Over these soundscapes, Cave bends images in to strange contexts; horses with manes ‘full of fire’, dying stars, paintings of Jesus and a spiral of children climbing to the sun. Perhaps it’s escapism as a means of coping with reality or maybe it’s an investment in a fantastical kind of faith. But every now and then he will bring it back to earth in moments of crippling clarity. ‘It isn’t fun to be standing here alone, with nowhere to be / with a man mad with grief…’ The most spellbinding song is the title track where he subverts the story of Goldylocks and the three bears’ to highlight his loss in simple, affectionate terms. ‘Baby bear has gone to the moon on a boat, on a boat.’ Words won’t convey how SAD Nick Cave as he sings these lines. The fight has gone from his voice. ‘I would turn the world around if I could/there’s nothing wrong with loving something you can’t hold in your hand.’

It isn’t an easy album to listen to. Cave’s emotional territory of grief and longing offers no let up or relief. It’s absorbing and, by the end, a little too much. There is none of ‘Push the Sky Away’s dry wit and playfulness to bounce away the dread. Even ‘Skeleton Tree’ felt more manageable. Other than the runtime (an hour and change) perhaps it’s the lack of catharsis that makes ‘Ghosteen’ a struggle. But this is obviously a controlled album, given a unified focus by the unusual title ‘Ghosteen’. It is what it is by design, and it’s designed impeccably well.

Grief is an ancient feeling, and an ancient topic for art. The last few years alone have given us musical masterpieces by Touché Amore, Mount Eerie and Sufjan Stevens, not to mention absorbing prose and poetry by the likes of Jason Greene, Joan Didon and Max Porter. But there is nothing quite like ‘Ghosteen’ out there; an album about life as much as death, and the weird space in between where the grieving gather.

8.5/10
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