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.

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  1. Dennis

    October 18, 2019 at 11:59 am

    “The first disc, the one about the children…” I think this misunderstands what Cave said in his Red Hand Files post announcing the new album. He did not say the first disc is “ABOUT the children” (indeed several, particularly “Night Raid,” are quite clearly “about” his wife more than anyone).

    He said: “The songs on the first album are the children. The songs on the second album are their parents.” In other words, he’s letting us in on an aspect of Ghosteen’s creation: The longer, somewhat darker (particularly the last half of “Hollywood”) songs on disc 2, though presented second, actually came first in the creative process. They then gave birth to the songs on disc 1, their children.

    And if you look at the thematic links between song on the two discs, you see how images and phrases from disc 2 (the parents) appear in slightly altered form (usually in a more positive, hopeful, or less despairing context) on disc 1 (their children), somewhat mimicking in the way people inherent traits from their parents, though always in a slightly altered form, never an exact copy.

    A few examples:
    1. “Hollywood” ends with the lines, “It’s a long way to find peace of mind…I’m just waiting now for my time to come…for peace to come.” “Spinning Song” ends with the lines, as if in reply to its parent on disc 2, “Peace will come, a peace will come, a peace will come in time…A time will come, a time will come, a time will come for us.”

    2. “Ghosteen” on disc 2 includes the line, “And the past with its fierce undertow won’t ever let us go.” This appears in altered, and positive, form on “Sun Forest,” as “And the past with its savage undertow lets go.”

    3 The recurring image of “Jesus lying in his Mother’s arms” is somewhat ambiguous, because we can’t be sure whether the image is a Pietà (the dead Christ in his Mother’s arms after being taken down from the Cross) or whether it’s a more hopeful – and sentimental and reassuring – Madonna and Child image. Given the songs and discs on which each image occurs, it seems to me that the “Jesus lying in his Mother’s arms” in “Fireflies” on disc 2 is intended to be a Pietà, while the same image in “Night Raid” is intended to be a Madonna and Child (which would make sense given the hotel scene – few hotels would have a Pietà on the wall – and the fact that it is clearly a “conception song.” The Madonna and Child on the wall look down upon Cave and his hopeful, expectant wife, whose twins have “annexed her insides in a late night raid”).


    • Dennis

      October 18, 2019 at 3:40 pm

      “Inherit traits” that should say above.


  2. Justin

    October 18, 2019 at 5:32 pm

    Thanks for your comment, Dennis. I appreciate your careful listening and your engagement with the review. I think you’re right that “about” is not the best word choice, though I do read the album working a little bit differently than you do (even considering Cave’s explanation). I see more of a back-and-forth, with something younger (similar to the way you describe) on disc 1. Multiple listens then make less for a strict transfer and more for a complex web or mapping of the images, many of which become hard to pin down precisely even if their meaning carries. Strict autobiography can be unexpectedly hard to apply here, even starting with the beginning of the album.
    For example, I think “Night Raid” is a key track in my thinking. The imagery makes much more sense to read as Madonna and Child, but hearing it a second time after “Fireflies” (where it’s more ambiguous) suggests that the Pieta ending of Jesus has become inherent in thinking about the Madonna imagery, especially given Cave’s own family tragedy. It becomes hard to read “Night Raid” in any straightforward manner — it will “never admit defeat,” but a great hurt is part of the risk of conception and parenting, which we know Cave knows. The track “Fireflies” also loads the song “Sun Forest,” but then both “Night Raid” and “Sun Forest” inform further listens of “Fireflies” (I realize this is a different understanding of it as listener than Cave’s approach as artist).
    At any rate, I’ll think some more on what you’ve said. Those are important connections and good guide to listening, and I’ll want to have that in mind as I go through the album again (and again). Thanks again.


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