The creative relationship between Nick Cave and Warren Ellis extends back almost 30 years, and bisects joy, success, and unimaginable loss. One of the most striking aspects of new album ‘CARNAGE’ then is its singular place in their deep, lengthy catalogue. It’s not – as many fans hoped – a return to Grinderman. Equally, with its electronic spasms, taut strings, and choral leanings, the record doesn’t feel like a Bad Seeds record, at least not in any standard sense.
Constructed amid the dystopia of 2020, ‘CARNAGE’ instead stands as something unique, the sound of two vastly experienced musicians removing themselves from expectations, and constructing something both beautiful and visceral, tender and blood-thirsty, wholly terrifying and completely absorbing.
‘Hand Of God’ is rooted in that Suicide-like pulse, Nick Cave’s voice sounding somewhere between a 19th century preacher and Alan Vega’s carnal longing. The slicing strings arrive in sighs, lighting up the sparse background while offsetting the solitary screaming of Cave’s lyricism.
‘Old Time’ offers a vision of loss – “we took a wrong turn somewhere” – amid a sonic landscape that is unrelenting in its sparsity. Each element screams out of the speakers, with a lengthy viola discourse from Warren Ellis brought to a shattering end, punctuated by feedback-driven noise rock guitar.
In spite of its formidable moniker, title track ’CARNAGE’ is one of the project’s more languid moments. Each synth note echoes like ripples on a pond, Nick Cave’s vocal grasping towards an unnamed loss; it’s opening line “I always seem to be saying goodbye…” can’t fail to be read in autobiographical terms, a song about family, and bonds that go deeper than words.
It would be wrong, though, to view ‘CARAGE’ simply as details of loss. It’s a far more complex and nuanced experience than that; at times, it feels as though Nick Cave is tramping on raw nerves, showcasing a confrontational side to his art that moves from carefully depicted melancholy to raw vulgarity.
Take the whispered intonations that drive ‘White Elephant’ – a narrative song akin to ‘Murder Ballads’ say – in which his voice ruptures with the laugh-out-loud line: “I am a Botticelli Venus with a penis…”
If such brazen penile enthusiasm represents the explicit ying of the ‘CARNAGE’ universe, then the plaintive, profoundly honest ’Albuquerque’ is its yang. Simple and to the point, it seems to tap into the mutual grief we all felt as 2020 drew its course – the cancelled plans, the upended expectations, and daily loss as ambitions were crushed. Nick Cave is at his most hopeless when he sings: “We won’t get to anywhere / any time this year darling…”
‘Lavender Fields’ comes closest to recalling Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ shadow-catalogue as film composers. The strings undulate like wind upon fields, wheezing almost like an accordion being pulled in and out. It’s a bounteous beauty, undeniably cinematic in its lonesome excursion – indeed, with the choir lingering in the background, Nick echoes the singular heroes that occupy centre stage in so many of those films. It’s hard not to be moved when he sings: “People ask me how I’ve changed / I say it is a singular road…”
This beatific feel continues on ‘Shattered Grounds’, a track that revels in the extreme dichotomy between ambient synths akin to Brian Eno’s ‘An Ascent’ and the open, unrelenting emotion of Nick Cave’s voice. Lyrically, he’s discussing second hand loss, watching someone lost in immeasurable grief; there’s an over-riding companionship, though, one that finds resolution in that wonderful closing line “And everywhere you are I will hold your hand again…”
Closing with ‘Balcony Man’, ‘CARNAGE’ is a record that occupies a singular realm. Everything feels poised, curated, and contoured, an album that expresses itself over eight tracks and no more; it’s succinct without leaning into brevity, a beautifully intense song cycle that thrives on the closeness of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. Indeed, throughout you’re put in mind of those voiceless moments in 2016’s One More Time With Feeling, the offering of a hand on shoulder, the side glances to ensure the others emotional security. ‘CARNAGE’ renders the unheard in pristine audio.
Words: Robin Murray
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