In an interview for The Guardian back in May 2017, in between the releases of 2016’s Skeleton Tree and last week’s Ghosteen, Nick Cave observed that “the idea that we live in a straight line, like a story, seems to me to be increasingly absurd.” He went on to call the idea an “intellectual convenience.” The truth, whether or not we choose to admit it, is that “everything is changing and vibrating and in flux.”
The experience of listening to Ghosteen – the seventeenth studio album released with band the Bad Seeds – takes you back to this idea. Since the tragic death of Cave’s fifteen-year-old son Arthur in 2015, critics, commentators and even fans are quick to associate the direction the band’s sound is going in with the tragedy. It’s understandable: the new album completes the trilogy begun with 2013’s Push the Sky Away, the last remaining piece to this dark, drifting noise space that now feels synonymous with their music.
The album is in pursuit of answers to the biggest questions – faith, existence, mortality. It feels like the sonic companion to 1997’s The Boatman’s Call, itself a trilogy conclusion of sorts. Death has been Cave’s thematic preoccupation for as long as we remember; it now has a real backdrop to justify its place in the music, but any notion that Ghosteen is him “coming to terms” with his loss is somewhat reductive and straightforward.
His grieving process, like anyone’s, is undoubtedly anything but a “straight line.” And neither is his band’s music, despite the illusion of linearity a track list (and in this case two-part structure) offers. Their latest release is difficult, uncompromising, and at times unbearable; but it’s necessary, by the time we come out the other side we realise that the listening process was transformative.
‘Bright Horses’ is the standout. Warren Ellis’ backing vocals punctuate this shimmering, beautiful track, at once delicate and enlivening: “Your body is an anchor / Never asked to be free / Just want to stay in the business / Of making you happy”. It’s devastating but hopeful, much like ‘Waiting for You’: the album’s most convincing case for a Boatman’s-era cut.
At the risk of hyperbole, it’s some of Cave’s best ever singing. It’s not the only evidence either: he hits a falsetto on ‘Spinning Song’ (and again as ‘Sun Forest’ fades out) that a professional half his age would be proud of. The track spends its first three minutes establishing a gloomy, otherworldly wall of sound for the note to pierce through in its fourth, flooding the abyss with light: “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.” Its mix of hope and pain is monumental; it shares this weight with its listener, lightening the load.
The album’s hope often comes from precisely this sense of community. ‘Sun Forest’, a continuation of the glitchy electronic work explored on Skeleton Tree, introduces vocals a whole two and a half minutes in, the fight and survival becoming a fierce tangle of voices: “Come on everyone, come on everyone / A spiral of children climbs up the sun.” If the suggestion is of some form of afterlife, then the relocation to it offers new life rather than signalling the end of one. ‘Bright Horses’ too lends Cave a backing choir – he’s rarely completely alone, thematically or vocally.
‘Galleon Ship’ is another example of breath-taking backing vocals. The album is full-blown cinema by this point: this world feels lived in, hardened by its suffering, hopeful of the pending redemption. ‘Ghosteen Speaks’ follows, ostensibly the catharsis being built towards; Cave finds reconciliation and comfort in the refrain “I am beside you”. Simple, human self-assurance. The realisation that he isn’t alone. As he reminded us in 1996 with a cohort of female guests (including PJ Harvey and Kylie Minogue), at the close of Murder Ballads: “Death is not the end.”
If we were looking to Ghosteen to provide something to simply fill the void, it doesn’t. Cave may be continuing to work, but the creative process doesn’t replace his insurmountable personal loss. As he observes in ‘Ghosteen Speaks’: “Where something is meant to be / I am beside you.” We may have expected the “something” to be epiphanic, the convenient moving on from grief, but the fact of loss never goes away. Cave shed light on this in One More Time with Feeling, Andrew Dominik’s documentary following the band as they put finishing touches on Skeleton Tree in the wake of Arthur’s death. He says how “things have been torn apart. And I’m desperately trying to find a way of making some kind of narrative sense out of it […] I can reduce this chaotic mess that’s happened to me down into something […] a kind of greeting card-sized platitude that means something to me, like “He lives in my heart”, or something like that […] but he doesn’t. I mean, he’s in my heart, but he doesn’t live at all.”
So he’s left with the ghosteen: the memory, something neither completely concrete nor abstract. The title track (and Part Two opener) details how the “ghosteen dances in my hand / Slowly twirling, twirling, all around.” And closing track ‘Hollywood’ revisits it, extending the objectification into pun: “It’s a long way to find peace of mind, peace of mind.” Cave wrestles with this over the track’s fourteen minutes: a necessarily epic ending to a dense, complex piece of work.
A piece of work that’s difficult but hopeful, full of darkness but supplier of enough light to illuminate its every square inch. One that’s gentle yet staggering, beautiful yet devastating. Skeleton Tree is near the top of a personal most-played list for the past three years, and Ghosteen will undoubtedly join it there for the next three and beyond. In Dominik’s documentary, Cave confessed that “all of this stuff I’m saying now, it just, it feels like a lot of bullshit to me”, and perhaps words aren’t the coping strategy for unimaginable trauma. The music, meanwhile, has at least offered a platform to spill everything out with a wider palate of texture and colour. Like so many entries in the Bad Seeds’ back catalogue, this is music that makes you feel alive – and what more could we ever ask for?