Only up to your knees : Nick Cave, Ghosteen and Palestine

And so to Ghosteen, released on November 8, the seventeenth Bad Seeds album and the first written, made and recorded entirely since the death of Arthur Cave, Nick’s fifteen year old son who fell in 2015 from a cliff near the Cave family home in Sussex. If it seems indiscreet to note the death, it is also impossible not to. Two albums and a film have been made, or retrospectively devoted – quite understandably – to the subject of the grief. Nick Cave and his wife, Susie Bick, created a sometimes awkward but always large-hearted and generous portrait of bereavement that tried to offer something in how such extremes of death, life, love and loss could ever be soothed inside a human heart.

The themes all persist into Ghosteen, which has an album cover of horses and lambs in a Narnia-like setting. Lyrics describe horses with manes of fire, pulsing fireflies and a broad fantasy of creatures in which Cave – who became a vegetarian since the death – explores grief through a landscape of animals and fairytales. To describe in any great detail the specific songs of the album is hard; it is a wide but sparse canvas of sound crafted largely by Warren Ellis, Cave’s violinist, collaborator in chief, and arch soundsmith. Tracks shift in and out of one another, and a number of the songs are more akin to poems or spoken word set to spectral hoops of sound, operatic highs and haunted vocals. Cave describes Ghosteen – set across two records of vinyl – theatrically, as if in three acts: “The songs on the first album are the children, the songs on the second album are their parents, Ghosteen is a migrating spirit.”

Enforced by the spirit of Cave’s giving-up custody of his music and songs, people can and of course will make up their own minds about the album. Given the subject it is perhaps apt that the collection seems occasionally lost, directionless, and if the music falls at all short, there is – rare in Cave – a certain indulgence of histrionics. If Cave’s music was often a navigation of great emotion or political thought with a light-hearted refusal to take himself too seriously, this is its opposite; a parading of great emotion that asks and possibly needs to be taken seriously in order to make its mark. Cave has wandered deeper into the sound design of Ellis, and the minimalism that first began in Dig Lazarus, Dig (2008) and Push The Sky Away (2013). Skeleton Tree (2016) and the death of Arthur added more weight to Cave’s pre-existing journey in this sonic wilderness, where songs like “I need you” and “Distant Sky” are a repeated, aching, quiet howl of grief, a heartrending curse at a world too cruel: “They told us our gods would outlive us, but they lied”.

For a few albums, it sounded like Cave needed this journey in sound to take a turn, to find a new lease of life, and although the Bad Seeds were always brilliant re-inventors, Ghosteen is not yet it. Cave’s song-writing genius, always his primary gift, falters. “We hide in our wounds” is a line from the final song, “Hollywood” probably offering some insight on Cave’s current state in life, before going to the next line, a basic road trip lyric of “And I’m nearly all the way to Malibu”. Perhaps it is the case that Cave’s genius, his creative aura, has now taken an epistolary turn towards his often magnificent letter writing, but where Cave once reeled-off great lyrical accomplishment, line after line and verse upon verse, one of the finest songwriters of the English language now struggles, line and a word at a time and supported (perhaps some metaphor for their wider friendship) by the sound of Ellis, and by an unspoken, shared understanding with his listener that Arthur’s loss is in each of Cave’s words, imbuing them with their meaning. Cave is clearly, deeply, spiritually tired, and the album closes-out “And I’m just waiting now for my time to come / and I’m just waiting now for peace to come.”

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