From the moment SoundCloud premiered ‘We No Who U Are’ (the ghostly lead single from ‘Push The Sky Away’) at 2012’s gloaming, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds have been transforming, vibrating, evolving into a whole new outfit that bears as little resemblance to its prior incarnations as it does to Cave’s old punk band The Birthday Party.
This change has been audible in their music, when the greasy aggression that underpinned the Seeds’ sound up until 2008’s ‘Dig, Lazarus, Dig!’ departed alongside founding member Mick Harvey, replaced by the more impressionistic, sparse experimentalism of new (red) right hand man Warren Ellis.
More importantly, however, it is visible in the larger, all-encompassing metamorphosis of Nick Cave as an artist, public figure and human being. Ten years ago, he was just another enigmatic ‘elder statesman of rock’ who made critically acclaimed albums and played decently-sized arenas fronting a well-respected band. Then came the decade of Spotify, Instagram and Reddit, and somehow, while his peers wasted time fetishising bygone days and lamenting the death of guitar music, Nick Cave blossomed.
‘Ghosteen’ is another chapter in Cave’s captivating quest for meaningful connection in a world where we so often feel disconnected; whether literally by wandering through the crowds at his increasingly packed shows (he now tours stadiums and headlines festivals), inverting the cliché of the withdrawn rock star by physically touching as many fans as possible; or by opening himself up both onstage and online with his Red Hand Files AMAs; or even when sharing his own trauma with the world in the incredibly moving One More Time With Feeling documentary that was recorded a mere seven months after the death of his son.
It is fitting, then, that Cave and his band debuted this album the way they did: no singles, no advance review copies, just a surprise announcement in a reply to a fan and a worldwide premiere via the universally accessible YouTube. It’s a moment of connection and shared euphoria, a rare, hair-raising ‘event release’ that facilitates an emotional communion between creator and consumer. It’s a reminder that while music can feel disposable in this digital age, it can also feel essential, unifying, spreading out until it’s as big as the universe.
Technically this is Cave’s seventeenth album with the Bad Seeds, but it feels more like the third. It’s a continuation of the sonic tapestry they began with ‘Push The Sky Away’ and continued on ‘Skeleton Tree’, the final instalment in a perfect trilogy that chronicles a personal journey of progression, devastation and, now, rebirth.
More than ever before Cave relinquishes control to let Ellis and his wandering keyboards set direction and pace (the shimmering, headphone-bursting beauty of tracks like ‘Sun Forest’ serve as a reminder that the Bad Seeds would still be a phenomenal band without their singer), giving the tracks space to grow and resonate naturally before gently taking the reins and guiding them to fresh pastures with his uncluttered piano and unmistakeable, weathered voice. There are almost no drums, giving the songs a distinctly celestial vibe as they float tether-free up, up and into clouds of gold.
Given that this is the first album fully written after his son’s death, you might expect Cave’s lyrics to fixate on what he has lost. Instead, even though the presence of absence that weighed on ‘Skeleton Tree’ remains (especially on ‘Ghosteen Speaks’, a song sung from the invisible mouth of an unseen companion), Cave uses this opportunity to celebrate that beauty which survived the blackness and his continued capacity for love.
This includes a whole clutch of the most powerful love songs Cave has ever written for his wife Susie: ‘Waiting For You’, ‘Night Raid’, ‘Leviathan’ and ‘Galleon Ship’ (which puts a more mature spin on the central conceit of his seminal ‘Ship Song’). Knowing just what Cave and Susie have been through over the past few years gives these songs a fierce, blazing intensity that makes prior efforts like ‘Green Eyes’ and ‘Sweetheart Come’ sound like little more than lovelorn scribbles in a teenager’s jotter.
‘Ghosteen’ is not a blissful or comfortable album, but it is a hopeful one. The gaping wound of ‘Skeleton Tree’ is scarring over as Cave pulls away from the past’s savage undertow, content in the knowledge that peace will come. It’s a paean to how all things bright and beautiful can be thrown into blinding relief once you’ve known real darkness, another open letter straight from artist to audience that cuts right to the core of what means to have loved, lost and loved again.
Words: Josh Gray
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