Album Review: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - Ghosteen
Since September 2018, Nick Cave has been communicating with his fans through the Red Hand Files, a website now home to over ninety funny, beautiful and insightful letters from the seasoned Australian bard. The sixth issue of the Red Hand Files sees Cave answer a fan’s question about communicating with the dead. “I have experienced the death of my father, my sister, and my first love in the past few years and feel that I have some communication with them, mostly through dreams,” the question begins. “They are helping me. Are you and (your wife) Susie feeling that your son Arthur is with you and communicating in some way?” “I feel the presence of my son, all around, but he may not be there,” Cave responds. “These spirits are ideas, essentially. They are our stunned imaginations reawakening after the calamity. Like ideas, these spirits speak of possibility. Follow your ideas, because on the other side of the idea is change and growth and redemption.”
Nick and Susie’s son Arthur died in July 2015 whilst Cave was recording his sixteenth studio album Skeleton Tree. Cave had mostly finished that record but following the tragedy he returned to the studio to review the material. The result isn’t an album about Arthur’s death but it is one unavoidably disrupted by it. Sparse and brooding, constructed from minimalist analogue synthesisers and abstract, improvised lyrics, Skeleton Tree almost feels unfinished. Which is exactly why it’s the best album of Cave’s career. Once known for spinning melodramatic Gothic tales with a morbid fascination afforded only to those distanced enough from death, Cave was now directly affected by it. It seemed to almost stop him in his tracks, unable to tell stories or compose music with the completeness or conventionality he once did. Instead, the album is painfully raw, bleak and beautiful in a way that can only be accomplished with absolute honesty and minimal artifice, harnessing his art not to obscure or adapt the truth but to reach its very depths.
In the 62nd issue of the Red Hand Files, Cave was asked when fans could expect a new album. “Next week,” Cave responded, suddenly announcing Ghosteen, his seventeenth studio album with the Bad Seeds. I anticipated the album with irrepressible intrigue. What would his perspective look like four years on from the tragedy of his son’s passing? What would the album sound like after having rejected the conventions of songwriting so fundamentally on Skeleton Tree? Most significantly, how on earth would he follow up such a masterpiece? By making another one, it turns out.
The arrangements are still largely minimalist and synth-driven but Cave and the Bad Seeds have imbued them with a new sense of life, to the point that they almost feel organic.
– Nathan Brooks
Skeleton Tree found Cave and his artistic expression brought to their rawest fundamentals, laid bare in their most honest and deconstructed forms. Ghosteen appears to chart Cave embracing this deeper understanding of himself and his music and learning how to draw those fundamentals together in a way that’s fuller and richer whilst being just as authentic, building a new, truer artistic life after the old one was dismantled. The arrangements are still largely minimalist and synth-driven but Cave and the Bad Seeds have imbued them with a new sense of life, to the point that they almost feel organic. Galleon Ship emphasises this effect by blending its whirring synths with a reversed vocal sample, whilst those that open Sun Forest pulsate and commune like their own ecosystem.
From the opening cosmic swirls of Spinning Song, the synthesisers most strongly embody a sense of fluctuation, a sense that defines the entire album. Human existence is unavoidably changeable and inconsistent. Skeleton Tree represented this fact as dissonant and painful but Ghosteen is able to embrace it as fluid and affirming. Bright Horses begins in the depths of pessimism, weary with the uninspiring and downtrodden reality of the world, but climbs into optimism with the return of the narrator’s partner. “Well there are some things / That are hard to explain / But my baby’s coming home now / On the 5.30 train” Cave declares, his voice moments ago mired in angst now touched with glee. It’s a wonderful reflection on how simple personal circumstance, like the presence of a lover, can drastically shift our existential outlook.
Cave’s voice is arguably working harder than it ever has before, most powerfully on the soul shattering chorus of Waiting For You, rising and falling as it reaches out for hope.
– Nathan Brooks
Every facet of Ghosteen is employed to reflect this shifting. Cave’s lyricism is at once densely poetic and strikingly direct, often within the same song. A cryptic tale about the king of rock ‘n’ roll that opens Spinning Song is suddenly interrupted by the simple repeating of the phrase “And I love you.” The title track juxtaposes almost whimsical fairytale imagery with some of the most heartbreaking confessions on the whole album, whilst Hollywood begins drenched in violent grief and ends meditating on a Buddhist story about the universality of death. Those last two tracks are both over ten minute long epics that showcase the album’s music at its best. The title track is a symphony of feeling, its first half crescendoing into the album’s most overwhelming high, carried by a din of instruments mixed so that they’re almost indistinguishable, whilst its second half softens into stark vulnerability, the moment where Ghosteen is most reminiscent of its predecessor. Hollywood is an even longer track with a more formless instrumental, an incorporeal haze of synths undercut by a sinister bass rumble, with shades of ambient guitar, piano and the Bad Seeds’ backing vocals floating in and out.
The voice is also a crucial part of this album. On Skeleton Tree, the minimalist arrangements meant that much of the heavy lifting was done by Cave’s singing and the Bad Seeds’ backing vocals. That’s also the case on Ghosteen but whereas before this heightened the vulnerability of the music, it now adds to the richness of it. Cave’s voice is arguably working harder than it ever has before, most powerfully on the soul shattering chorus of Waiting For You, rising and falling as it reaches out for hope. The Bad Seeds’ voices bolster Cave’s with a ghostly strength, sometimes acting as a wordless wave, as on Sun Forest, propelling Cave’s voice higher and higher, and otherwise joining in with him, as on Galleon Ship, creating a mystical chorus that hints at a presence beyond the physical. This presence is also felt on Ghosteen Speaks, as spectral backing vocals swell around the mantra-like repetition of “I am beside you”.
What is this presence? At the heart of Ghosteen lies a fascinating spiritual ambiguity. Cave has always loved to blend religious imagery and he continues to do so here, emphasising the unifying spiritual themes and blurring the lines between doctrines. But there’s another spiritual presence on this album too, his late son Arthur. Waiting For You exemplifies this ambiguity, as Cave uses language that evokes the Second Coming of Christ, but it’s unclear whether what he’s really anticipating is the return of Jesus or the return of his son. Perhaps he sees the two events as one and the same.
Ghosteen is one of those albums that stirs the very depths of your soul and lodges itself in your being for the rest of your existence.
– Nathan Brooks
The ambiguous spiritual presence that fills the album takes the form of the titular ‘ghosteen’. This presence is most strongly felt during the title track’s cacophonous peak, as Cave declares “A ghosteen dances in my hand / Slowly twirling, twirling, all around” and the Bad Seeds’ backing vocals echo in confirmation. But this presence is not constant. After Cave makes that declaration, the song falls into some of the album’s most sombre moments, during which the reassuring presence that earlier promised “I am beside you” couldn’t feel further away. It causes the listener to question what that presence even was. Was it God? Was it Cave’s son? Or was it just Cave talking to himself? Well, as Cave says in his letter, there may be no presence, he may just be feeling a collection of ideas originating from his grief-stricken imagination. But the effects of those ideas, the opportunities for growth and change they open up, are powerful and real regardless of the way in which they exist. And we know that because we feel it in the music. Maybe ghosteen is God, maybe it’s Cave’s son or maybe it’s just well arranged music and good poetry. But the expansive feelings it provokes within us are still genuine, so does it really matter?
Ghosteen is one of those albums that stirs the very depths of your soul and lodges itself in your being for the rest of your existence. The fact that this is the second time Cave has achieved such an album in the space of three years speaks to what an artistic titan he is. A remarkable five decade long career would have been more than enough to guarantee Cave’s legacy but Skeleton Tree and Ghosteen have cemented him as one of the greatest songwriters of all time. Ultimately, this is an album that I cannot adequately put into words; there was so much more I wanted to say about it that was simply out of my reach as a writer. The nuances and beauty of Ghosteen only truly work in the medium they were created from and can only be experienced to their fullest depths by listening. In a time gripped by the need to process grief, I couldn’t recommend you do that more highly.
The Breakdown | Album Review: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Ghosteen
With an intangible spiritual quality coursing through beautiful compositions and heart-wrenching poetry, Ghosteen is a profound meditation on grief and another masterpiece from one of the greatest songwriters alive.