Review Summary: The storm, the calm, and the quiet words that count.Nick Cave and Warren Ellis
, huh? It’s about damn time. As Cave himself indicated in his Red Hand Files
blog, the spirit of his long-serving, barn-burning Bad Seeds died with pianist Conway Savage in 2018 (requiescat.); his partnership with Ellis has been his output’s driving force ever since Skeleton Tree
, and it’s coincided with a broader change in his public image. This, in turn, has opened the doors to a new kind of recognition, no longer as an erudite dark horse, but now as a sensitive elder statesman. It’s been a significant shift for Cave, and in many ways a positive one. The same can’t be said for the wider world over the past year (moot point of all moot points), and the prospect of a Cave lockdown album is no great surprise; his recent work has opted decreasingly for vivid fiction, prioritising emotional truths and engagement with the here and now - and what a time that is! Hell is empty, and no-one snares stray devils quite like Nick Cave. Factor in Ellis’ flair for cinematic layerings and hawkish command of an engaging arrangement, and you have the makings of something cogent.
And so here we are: two old friends playing music in a room together. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. This isn’t just a fuss over branding; it’s exactly how Carnage
starts off. Cave splays his hands over his keys and muses over these people here and those people there, while Ellis’ violin purrs a modest accompaniment. The whole thing is modest. It’s quaint. It’s exactly what you might facetiously imagine for an acoustic downtime showcase of the two performers in question; those drawn unconditionally to the sound of Cave’s splayed fingers will swoon, but everyone else may be a little underwhelmed.
It’s a false start, and you can tell that the pair were flirting with this; how else do you interpret the morbid flourish with which they drop the curtain half a minute into opener “Hand of God”? A foreboding string scoop stops the song in its tracks, dissipating into a silence that spans like a vapour trail from Cave’s larynx to the pit of your stomach; it lingers for precisely one beat longer than required to telegraph that something
is about to fucking happen, and then, scatter your salt and bury your iron, it does
. That red herring overture yields to eight succinct showcases of shifting narratives, clashing tones and momentous oscillations of intensity, threaded together by a twisted logic at times stylistically jarring but instantly familiar with the spirit of Covid-era online reality. You know how it goes, keeping with a deeply unsettling reality via a dissociating blur of sources; one foot wedged in isolated limbo, the other dragged into the distance by a world’s worth of bad news.
thrives off this delocalisation and tumult. Each voice gives way to another at the drop of the hat; one moment Ellis is wheezing himself hoarse in the “Hand of God” chorus, the next he’s been replaced by a full choir; one moment Cave is verging on biblical doomspitting (“Old Time”), the next he’s pining over a moonlit vision of his wife (“Shattered Ground”). It’s a violent smashing together of political and private voices, borne out in clement ambience and seething distortion. Above all, it’s a deeply collective work, from the disparity of its sonic palette to its interchange of standpoints to its incorporation of lyrical motifs. These are particularly interesting; Cave runs prismatically through a range of views and voicings of the sun, the moon, an all-evasive kingdom in the sky
, and an uneasy set of bags into the back of a car
, to the effect that the sheer plurality of perspectives on each draws more significance than any given commonality. Cave has never been one for hackneyed we-live-in-a-society quips; he shows not tells, and wastes not a moment in doing so. It’s a wild ride.
At its best, Carnage
’s statement is pertinent and arresting in a way that could never have come from anyone else. “White Elephant” is the most striking example of this, a protest track that sets up an almost fantastical portrait of a vengeful warrior-god before capsizing it into a backwater swamp of coursing entitlement and white supremacy within two sickening lines (The president has called in the feds / I’ve been planning this for years
). Cave has widely distanced himself from the absolutism of progressive movements, and so it’s an unexpected thrill to hear him advocate the Black Lives Matter movement so forcefully, especially since he does so within the gruesome register that originally carried him to household fame. The song comes to a head in a clamorous gospel-backed climax, marking a dynamic zenith for the album as a whole; it’s a larger than life moment, allegorical in some senses and bitingly real in others. I’m intrigued and a little sceptical to see how well it will fare with a couple of years behind it, but it’s hard to imagine a more rousing flashpoint.
The ever-transforming scope of “White Elephant”, and Carnage
’s first half in general, is so intense and expansive that you’d be forgiven for questioning whether Cave and Ellis could possibly sustain it across a whole album. Truth be told, they don’t. In keeping with the original metaphor of the white elephant (taking custody of something beyond your means), the record’s first half tears off more than its second can chew over within the demands of its economical runtime. Things get a little drab in the third quarter: “Albuquerque” and “Lavender Fields” are far from bad songs, but they scale the album back to Ghosteen
-esque ambient musings just after it peaks, and the result is a somewhat disappointing step down from a thitherto unbroken cycle of reinvention. “Lavender Fields” is pretty enough in ink to dodge that bullet, but “Albuquerque” is the weakest exhibition of Cave’s penmanship on offer here; at only two verses, it’s a relatively spartan showing, but its lament for the demise of international travel is one of the few points where Carnage
’s engagement with the global pandemic runs a little moot. It’s as innocuous as lowlights get, but the record is too bold and tightly focused to afford such an obvious lacuna.
Fortunately enough, there’s still another half of the story to tell. As was largely the case with Ghosteen
, this album’s chief strength comes less from Ellis’ slick stylisation and brash patchwork, and much more from the extraordinary amount of reassurance in Cave’s best-placed candour. This struck me early on in my first playthrough; for all the shock value of its opening minutes, the first time Carnage
spoke to me as more than a spectacle was Cave’s straightforward declaration in the gorgeous title-track that I hope to see you again
. It’s a facile line in many senses, everyday icing on an already intimate cake, but there’s something magical in how that one moment of casually courteous direct address cuts through so much circulating hubbub. It’s sincere and disarming and beautiful in a way that feels at once refreshing to the album’s tone and thoroughly familiar to the present-day Nick Cave experience.
It is also far from an isolated moment: similar asides crop up throughout Carnage
, grounding Cave’s narratorial intimacy until he takes the full weight of the album’s restlessness upon himself. Closer “Balcony Man” inserts his presence as a stand-in resolution to all those unresolvable sequences of change and interchange. These spiral on as fiercely as ever, with a new target; Cave is melting ice, he’s a bag of bones, he’s an octopus, he’s wearing the mask and dancing with the shoes of Fred bloody Astaire - but he’s there
alright, and he sounds as weary as just about anyone. The album’s final mantra of This morning is amazing and so are you
is superficially uplifting, but there’s a self-awareness to its banality, a sly nod to the futility of forcing a grander statement in such an uncertain, exhausted time. Carnage
has some of the most sophisticated dressing of any recent album by a prominent artist, but it comes to a rest with a simple gesture of solidarity.
Sometimes that’s enough. That any album as dedicated as this one to concretely relatable scenes of instability can come around with a convincing approximation of enough
is a wonder to begin with, but there’s a gentle assurance behind Cave’s humanity that puts his storm clouds on hold and allows for a powerful moment of release at a time where people are typically foolish to expect anything of the kind. That’s ‘real’, for me at least, in a way that very few musical experiences seem ‘real’. It’s been a long while since any album left me in that cinema-credits daze of material existence reasserting itself, and it’s clear from Cave’s wider platform and authorship that this is more than suspension of disbelief on his audience’s part. You can chalk Carnage
up as anything from a zeitgeist experiment to a flawed masterpiece, but there’s something precious and compassionate at its heart that I honestly believe will make the world a better place in its own peculiar way, beyond the scope of critical evaluation. So take a look at those end credits, give it up for ‘em: Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. Turns out they made a real one.