NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS
It’s true of the petty and ordinary just as it is true of something great, which Ghosteen undeniably is, that timing and context matter. As much and sometimes more so than meaning. Or we use them to give meaning at the very least.
Nick Cave & The Bad Seed’s 2016 album, Skeleton Tree, was not “about” the death of Nick Cave’s son, Arthur, though it emerged in the months after that devastating event. As Cave would explain — though not in any interviews, as he didn’t do them, for very understandable reasons — the songs were written before that death and had, obviously, no lyrical connection.
However, Skeleton Tree — recorded as Cave, his family and his friends (including, not least, his band) lived through the aftermath, and heard by us as the first expression or reflection of Cave’s “response” — was “from” the death: suffused with the loss of Arthur; raw with a feeling of it; driven by the need to work through and feel that bottomless emotion that sprang from it.
That’s not just because when we heard it that is what we, inevitably, projected onto it – though, as with any work of art, that’s an outcome that is both outside the control of the artist, and perfectly understandable in a listener/reader/viewer. It’s because, well, of course it was. This was Cave’s life, this was the context in which the music was recorded, this is what informed his decisions and responses.
Ghosteen, is also not “about” Arthur’s death, but this album is about living with that grief, about understanding and articulating what it is to lose and to retain, about trust in things that endure: others you love or you draw from, faith, pain.
It is a sadly beautiful record of intense intimacy whose sonic palette is severely limited (the Bad Seeds are such a minimal or subliminal factor you wonder at their sublimation of ego) but whose emotional palette is broad. And its message, like its lyrics, is as simple and as profound as we don’t have to do this alone; he isn’t doing this alone.
It arrives in the context of not just a few years more of lives lived but two major shifts in the way Cave has faced the world. Firstly, there’s the Red Hand Letters, his continuing frank, tender, deeply thought-through online interactions with people writing to him with questions and requests for advice.
Then there’s the solo tour he conducted along the same lines where, between playing songs, he took questions from the floor and answered them with as much directness and honesty — and humour — as anyone could hope for, while making it clear he was taking as much as he was giving.
Importantly, he explained at different points that he had been lifted by these interactions and sustained by what those interactions evoked in him. This wasn’t an exercise; it was a new way to do things, and the effects would be in his art. It couldn’t help but be.
Don’t be mistaken though, there is some deep, crushing-to-listen-to pain here. After all “Love's like that, you know, it's like a tidal flow/And the past with its fierce undertow won't ever let us go/Won't ever let you go”. And that is felt beyond the lyrics, in the sound of uncompromising sparseness, even when occasional rising tides of male or female backing vocals bring shards of light and muted colour.
Near-exclusively made from mordant synthesisers and piano, where the slow rumbling bass of Hollywood (the second of two lengthy — 12 and 14 minutes — tracks which bookend a spoken word piece on the second disc of this double album) feels like it is coming from a deep cave of darkness and the “drum” which opens Waiting For You feels like the last throes of a lost machine, Ghosteen is wholly enveloping, almost claustrophobic. Almost.
It is Cave, sometimes venturing into bare falsetto and never feeling more than a hands-breadth away from you — in Leviathan he may as well be right in your head — who somehow allows just enough air into the space to suggest an exit point for your own sadness. To say that “everyone has a heart and it’s calling for something”, and that’s ok.
In Waiting For You, which is a song of farewell dressed as a promise of return, he bends into the hurt, never quite cracking. In Bright Horses, he almost rises with the sublimely comforting male chorus, looking outward from the things that “time can’t dissolve at all” to the thought that while “this world is plain to see/It don't mean we can't believe in something/And anyway, my baby's coming back now on the next train”.
Then in the title track, which, expanding on areas traversed in Skeleton Tree, hovers between David Bowie circa Low and early Roxy Music’s most disconcerting tremors, he doesn’t arrive until four minutes. But he makes it sound like a long in-drawn breath had preceded that, the release of air a slim beacon offering “This world is beautiful, held within its stars/I keep it in my heart, the stars are your eyes/I love them right from the start, a world so beautiful/and I keep it in my heart.”
But wait, that beacon does light a fracture, does show a hurt that goes deeper than what can be brushed aside or “grown” away from. Fireflies, the spoken word interlude (which doesn’t feel that much different to the other tracks in truth) isn’t pretending so. “And we lie among our atoms and I speak to you of things/And hope sometimes that maybe you will understand … we are fireflies pulsing dimly in the dark/We are here and you are where you are”.
But that’s ok. That’s as it should be. Ghosteen isn’t an answer. It certainly isn’t the answer. But it is an exchange, and a reminder that “there's nothing wrong with loving something you can't hold in your hand”.