Review Summary: A ghost on the move.Skeleton Tree
forever changed the way we will look at Nick Cave. Following the tragic death of his teen son Arthur, the record – which was mostly written prior to his passing – saw its lyrics amended by a grieving Cave to befit themes of death and loss. Of course, the pain in his voice throughout the actual recording process was so palpable that it became an inescapable facet of Skeleton Tree
’s atmosphere. Some of the previously written verses may have been coincidental, incidentally prophetic – but there was nowhere for Nick Cave to hide his gaping emotional wounds when singing lines like “the phone it rings, it rings no more” or “you're still in me, baby, I need you.” That bare and forsaken aura permeated Skeleton Tree
, a record that saw a man at his lowest of lows trying to make sense of tragedy in its rawest possible form.
presents an interesting conundrum on the heels of that emotional wreckage. How do you come back from the death of your son and make an album? Despite the four years that have now passed since Arthur was found at the bottom of that cliff, Nick is still understandably grappling with his absence. The album was never going to be able to return to the comparatively upbeat rock of Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus
, a phase of the Bad Seeds that appears to be firmly rooted in their past due to a combination of Mick Harvey’s departure and Cave’s current life situation. Nobody would have blamed Nick if he was still entombed in depression either, although nothing he could write now would be able to echo the immediacy of Skeleton Tree
’s shattering circumstances. This presents something of an unexpected crossroads moment
this late in his career, but in typical Nick Cave fashion, he embraces the challenge and more than pulls it off with a seamless fusion of familiarity and progression.
takes on the hollowed-out ambience of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ last two outings – somehow becoming even more minimal in the process – while coloring that emptiness with brighter and more uplifting accents. Most of the songs here offer little beyond Cave’s vocals and lyrics, but whereas the pervading tone of Skeleton Tree
was inevitably morose, Ghosteen
is painted with more hopeful hues. Synths swell with Cave’s existential musings in gorgeous time, underscored by pianos that lend the double album an air of majesty. There’s no better example of all this than ‘Bright Horses’, a song that floats among the heavens as Cave looks toward the light to bring back everything he’s lost:
I can hear the whistle blowing, I can hear the mighty roar
I can hear the horses prancing in the pastures of the Lord
Oh the train is coming, and I'm standing here to see
And it's bringing my baby right back to me
The apparition-like ahh
’s that are prevalent make the song feel even more personal and spiritual, and one can almost envision Cave trembling with hope as he waits to embrace Arthur, a figure he so eloquently refers to here as “the little white shape dancing at the end of the hall.” It’s heartbreaking. ‘Galleon Ships’ is another track whose aesthetics demand attention, as synths rise and fall dramatically atop distant, echoing conversations and sparse, wispy piano lines. Lyrical imagery pertaining to far-off sunrises and floating galleons make it the most mysteriously ethereal track, as well as a barometer of what one can expect when Ghosteen
ascends from its minimal foundation.
All isn’t well, however, on Ghosteen
– this is still very much a desperate record that mourns loss and questions not just why we lose everything that we love, but how we’re supposed to continue on after. ‘Sun Forest’ admirably sets that tone with screaming horses, burning trees, and hanging bodies – morbid images stemming from the loneliness of the man behind the pen: “no, it isn't any fun to be standing here alone with nowhere to be.” The lyrics become less abstract and more pointed on the album’s second disc, where Ghosteen
sees itself shift from the lush amenities of its opening half to a deeply proximal, bare-bones canvas that even contains a spoken-word track. Suddenly we find ourselves in the Cave household on the record’s towering, twelve minute title track: “you're in the back room washing his clothes...the past with its fierce undertow won't ever let us go” / “mama bear holds the remote…papa bear, he just floats / and baby bear, he has gone…to the moon on a boat.” It’s amazing to witness Nick’s emotional and lyrical growth from Skeleton Tree
to now, and one can almost hear the various stages of grief unfolding. In 2016, he was clearly still devastated – practically immobilized by his own emotional anguish – and everything was delivered from a cold, linear, and unforgiving perspective. Now, his lyrics – while still drowned in sorrow – are more reflective and symbolic. Although its unclear if he’ll ever actually reach a stage of acceptance, Ghosteen
serves as a snapshot of Cave in transition – not unlike the realm-drifting spirits he sings about.
It would be easy to lump Ghosteen
in with its two predecessors – after all, it’s the final part of that trilogy – but just as there were marked differences between Skeleton Tree
and Push Away the Sky
, this record also possesses a unique footprint. Nobody would have called Skeleton Tree
a “pretty” album (unless we’re talking about “finding the beauty in sorrow”). For what Ghosteen
loses in its immediate proximity to tragic loss, it makes up for with perspective – which takes shape through Cave’s most beautiful compositions ever. It’s a record that’s aesthetically “pretty” in a sense that Skeleton Tree
never could have been because it would have clashed with the lyrics and jeopardized the seriousness of the content at stake. Here, Cave is afforded the kind of flexibility that only comes with time, as devastation and isolation have slowly transformed into memories and loneliness. With some distance finally between 2015 and the present, Cave finds himself asking more questions than ever. The shock of Arthur’s death has passed, and now it’s on to “what do I do now, where do I go?” Along with philosophical lyrics come a push for artful flourishes that complement thoughts and ideas of the metaphysical; it’s all a very delicate transition, but one that Cave handles with the utmost degree of humanity and professionalism.
Such emotional deftness and tact is made all the more impressive when you consider just how damaged Cave still is. On the fourteen minute closing movement, ‘Hollywood’, he repeats the line “I'm just waiting now, for my time to come.” It’s not the sound of a man who has come to terms with anything at all; it’s more like he’s simply waiting out a sentence on this Earth. There’s an air of finality not only to ‘Hollywood’, but to the entirety of Ghosteen
. Cave has been such a prolific artist over his career, producing seventeen albums under The Bad Seeds moniker alone, and at age sixty two it wouldn’t be out of the question to see him ride into the sunset after this. Of course, the fact that his voice has not diminished (if anything, his range has improved) provides little in the way of support for a theory that is hopefully wrong to begin with. Every successive Nick Cave album is just an additional opportunity to witness him at his absolute greatest, which is where he’s been since Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus
may be the biggest boon to his mythical career yet; it’s another masterpiece that will forever be enshrined in his ever-growing legacy. Absolute perfection.
There is no order here and there is no middle ground
Nothing can be predicted and nothing can be planned
A star is just a memory of a star
We are fireflies pulsing dimly in the dark
We are here and you are where you are