Album Review: Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - 'Ghosteen'

Louis goes in-depth on the latest release from goth rock legends Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds.

Nick Cave always has been a mercurial figure in the land of alternative rock. Originally a firebrand, known for the obscene diatribes of Stagger Lee and The Mercy Seat, he has softened with time into an elder statesman, presiding over music with a piano ballad in one hand and an all-encompassing monologue in the other. His career began with the ugly post-punk of The Birthday Party and early Bad Seeds; he was the prince of all things gothic, with a shock of black hair and an emaciated scowl. As The Bad Seeds progressed, he became ever more poetic, with a knack for succinct summations of the human experience. This was to become a constant throughout his career.

The journey from punk vitriol to the ruminations of Ghosteen is not immediately obvious. To fully understand it, we must cast our eyes back to the period between 2013’s Push the Sky Away and 2016’s Skeleton Tree. Cave was in the midst of a career high in 2013, releasing an album received as a masterwork, documented in an award-winning documentary, and was universally revered as an icon. And then, disaster struck. In a horrendous turn of events, Cave’s 15 year old son Arthur, died from a cliff fall. Cave was recording the follow up to Push the Sky Away and filming a documentary following the sessions. He decided to let the cameras roll, and continue the album. The result, Skeleton Tree, was nothing short of a masterpiece.

"Cave is at his creative peak and is using it to convey near-universal truths. We may never see his ilk again."

The recordings were inevitably coloured by the trauma. It was stark, all harsh truths and ghostly narratives. But he turned the horror into something beautiful. He did what Cave does best: holding a mirror to our world, showing us both beauty and pain. Inspired by the ensuing tour, he began a venture to bring him even closer to his audience; the Red Hand Files. A website to answer questions posed by fans; inane in the wrong hands, but in Nick’s became quite beautiful. He then toured the same concept, answering questions live. It is impossible to separate Ghosteen from this endeavour.

Ghosteen is the work of someone who has experienced utmost grief and the most profound sense of community, and has been irrevocably changed by both. He brings to this album a sense of sensitivity and subtlety. He sees these albums as a trilogy, but says these songs aren’t an answer to Skeleton Tree. The swirling synthesizers of his last album are nearly exclusively the sonic palette of Ghosteen, and the formless soliloquys remain. However, he is far from unchanged. The structure is as much a part of the story as the compositions - the album is split into two parts. He says the first eight are the ‘children’, the final three are their ‘parents’. Also of note is that this is the only record of the three (and the first since 2003) not to feature producer Nick Launay. Indeed, the only production credits are from long-time collaborator Warran Ellis and Cave himself; a choice that one can only assume is intentional to create something raw and unbridled.

"An impartial observer he is not, both affecting and affected by these scenes."

Ghosteen builds on the textures of its predecessor, featuring practically no percussion, just Ellis’ synth programming and the occasional piano accompaniment. However, the starkest change is the overall feel of the record. Dare I say it, there are moments of optimism. Cave promises that he ‘just wants to stay in the business of making you happy’. Sure, there are the usual biblical tales; horses with ‘manes full of fire’ and ‘no shortage of tyrants and fools’. Yet, where a past Cave would have these myths stand alone, this Nick finds he must tear them down. The horses are ‘Just horses, their manes aren’t full of fire’, and this world is ‘Plain to see’. He’s right, the first eight tracks feel entirely separate to the other three - the opening eight are much like vignettes of Cave’s world now, snapshots bringing together all his themes of love, grief and longing. An impartial observer he is not, both affecting and affected by these scenes.

So, we reach the second side, 'the parents’. Ghosteen and Hollywood both come in at upwards of 10 minutes, linked by the spoken word poetry of Fireflies. The title track is a meditation on bereavement; it contains tiny fragments of heartache that blindside the listener. Take the description of Cave’s wife Susie, washing their son’s clothes, even after his death. Nick himself seems to have come to terms with the affection he feels for his lost son, stating ‘There’s nothing wrong with loving something you can’t hold in your hand’. And yet, the chorus feels almost hopeful… impossible to deny. Fireflies recalls the Skeleton Tree outtake Steve McQueen, with its ruminations on the meaningless of existence - ‘Jesus lying in his mother’s arms/Is just a photon released from a dying star’.

Image courtesy of Matt Thorne

Finally, comes Hollywood. Superficially this could feel like a typical Cave yarn. Following a Hollywood has-been, it’s full of familiar touchstones, and the vocals could sit along tracks from anywhere in the trilogy. But Cave uses this well-worn narrative to transport the audience far from where we started. Cave states, over and over, like the mantra of a Buddhist monk possessed, ‘I’m just waiting for peace to come’. The phrase rears its head like a leviathan from the depths again and again throughout the album. This is the point Cave has been making throughout this beautiful, forlorn work: he no longer feels in control of his world.

He is flawed, he is vulnerable; he has been hurt irrevocably, and yet still he prostrates himself before us, the audience. He sacrifices his experiences on the altar, and in this ultimate vulnerability, there is a magnificence. Here is an artist tunnelling to the depths of what it means to be human, to be mortal, to suffer. He is at his creative peak and is using it to convey near-universal truths. We may never see his ilk again.