One of the most challenging and most beautiful of Cave’s career.
Maybe it starts with the old music, the murder ballads and the gothic aesthetic, the violence and the religion. Maybe all that was prelude, or at least necessary context. Or maybe it doesn’t, maybe it all starts with the tragedy; the loss of a child changes everything. Wherever it comes from, our reception of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ new album Ghosteen hinges on the real-world grief surrounding it, whether in its share of the years of art proceeding it or the sudden break that happens. Cave’s previous work, 2016’s Skeleton Tree, opened the door a little. Ghosteen takes years of hurt, sorrow and reflection and releases them in an astonishing double-album, one of the most challenging and most beautiful of Cave’s career.
There’s something about grief that draws us in. Mount Eerie’s A Crow Looked at Me marks one recent example of a loss-centered album that instantly hits home. The concept centers on our own fears and vulnerability in a way that little else can. But grief can also overwhelm in its magnitude and its senselessness; a stream of heartbreak can rush pass, too tumultuous to leave its effect. Cave’s power here comes in his ability to harness everything into a work so marvelously artistic and surprisingly open.
Cave’s autobiography certainly plays a part, and his history as a storyteller who turned mystique into utter accessibility matters, but if the album was simply confessional, it wouldn’t support its own edifice. Cave still knows how to turn phrases and how to punch with ambiguity. Fans will likely spend considerable time debating which figures represent him or his son, or someone or something else altogether. Within that ambiguity, the music takes on a cosmic scope that demands empathy and suffering.
The first disc, the one about the children, opens with “Spinning Song,” a cut ostensibly about Elvis Presley, but which morphs into something more archetypal as it presents the album’s first moment of loss. As Cave repeatedly sings, “I love you,” it becomes both and offering and a comfort. He sings to himself and to the rest of us as he sings, “Peace will come.” The backing vocals, carefully avoiding both bright harmony or minor deflation, make the affair otherworldly.
“Bright Horses” follows by creating a series of symbolic images and then immediately destroying them. “And horses are just horses and their manes aren’t full of fire,” Cave sings. “The fields are just fields and there ain’t no Lord/ And everyone is hidden, and everyone is cruel.” But don’t believe for a second that he believes it, at least not all the way. He wrote recently in The Red Hand Files that God “in all probability does not exist.” He continues, “I feel my songs are conversations with the divine that might, in the end, be simply the babblings of a madman talking to himself.” Even so, he continues to talk, and his music maintains a continual rejection of that probability. The song ends with the horses returned to “pastures of the Lord” and the expectation of his lost one returning.
The album continues this way, a mix of sensitivity and challenge in a sequence of images that shape a bigger idea. There’s no narrative progression. Ghosteen is not the story of Cave coming to terms with his loss. There are no terms. But the complex meditations build a world that we can exist in, space to grieve and hope at the same time.
The second disc marks the set for the parents, just two lengthy tracks surrounding a short spoken-word bit. This set opens with portentously, but Cave doubles down on his transcendent hope. “This world is beautiful,” he sings after everything he’s processed. He doesn’t say it’s easy or safe or welcoming. In “Fireflies” he reveals that life is a composite of the inexplicably spiritually and the ruggedly physical. “Nothing can be predicted and nothing can be planned,” but still, “We are here.”
The album closes with the massive “Hollywood,” its glittery title a foil for the deep yearnings of the song, an out in a world in which “there’s little room for wonder now, and little room for wildness, too” (wonder plays a particularly important role in the album). Ultimately, Cave finds the Buddhist story of Kisa Gotami and her first step of enlightenment through the inevitability of “losing somebody.” Cave sounds like he’s taken more than one step, but he’s “waiting now, for peace to come.”
That putative peace looks back to the album’s opening. In grief, peace is transitory at best, but it remains something to yearn for. Cave offers no easy solutions. He does offer experience and, maybe just as important, imagination. Ghosteen doesn’t succeed by being cathartic or empathetic or anything that we might consider utilitarian (though it is those things). It succeeds on its bigness, of vision and of hurt, of meditation and imagery, of despair and hope. Cave and the Bad Seeds have made an album uniquely rich in both its artistry and its humanity, as devastating as it is beautiful.