NICK CAVE & WARREN ELLIS
In which the Old Testament – its god of anger and violence; its human extremes; its permanent threat; its catalogue of fears only just tethered by the trust of faith; its promises unfulfilled but nonetheless prayed for – returns to the landscape of Nick Cave songs.
“The trees are black and history/Has dragged us down to our knees/ Into a cold time.”
Not as the only force, not as a replacement for New Testament intimacy – the nearness to a god whose succour is unconditional; the promise fulfilled; the sense that unbearable pain is not borne alone; an “after” to balance or correct or compensate for a “now” – but as its companion.
“This song is like a rain cloud/That keeps circling overhead/Here it comes around again/And it’s only love/With a little bit of rain/And I hope to see you again.”
For a man of faith, though not necessarily religion, god’s centrality doesn’t come with a fixed place, or a fixed face, in any story. Nor does that man of faith come in only one pose, the supplicant.
“With my elephant gun of tears/I’ll shoot you all for free/If you even think about coming round here/I’ll shoot you in the fucking face/If you think of coming around here.”
Yep. After two albums which shrank the width and volume, narrowed the emotional range but opened up vast depths of emotion around the punishing loss of a child – Skeleton Tree, which was written before but recorded when immersed in grief; and Ghosteen, written in the wake of that grief and the connections made with others in the course of that grief – Nick Cave and his translator/sounding board/facilitator/collaborator/friend, Warren Ellis looked around and not just in.
And what they found was fury alongside hope; a sense of the power projected (whether felt or not) by a type of man for whom retribution is as valid a response as tears; an openness about the gulf inside us; and yet renewal and love. It’s carnage, but not wholesale destruction.
“By the side of the road is a thing with horns/Steps back into the tree/And a child is born/Upon this trembling earth.”
Carnage (which for now is only available in digital form as vinyl and CD versions won’t be released until June 18) carries something we haven’t seen for a while from Cave, menace. Ellis’ manipulations of organic and non-organic sounds, for example in the brooding bass and increasing tension of White Elephant, and the mix of pulse and squinting strings in Hand Of God – sowing the seeds that flower in the pinched, urgent, maybe even frightened repetition of the title – are deliciously unsettling.
While there are songs of unfettered feeling (the aching dream of Albuquerque most of all) some of the contrasting moments of tenderness, or of tender need, on the album come with some similar disquiet. The world we are seeing is not benign, nor is its god, or gods.
In the faith-as-a-kind-of-love Lavender Fields, and the love-as-an-act-of faith conundrum of Balcony Man, this is in underscore. Meanwhile, the filmed-script imagery of Old Time is poetically simple and yet pungently placed in context as violin, bass and the sense of scratched glass being pierced finally by what may be a slowly tortured guitar, take hold.
However, in Shattered Ground, Cave’s imploring reach recalls some of the fevered preacher cadence of his earlier recordings, and with the swell of keyboards thickening slightly as the song progresses, there’s tension more than implied.
But it sits beneath a passion that is both highly literate and yet almost beyond words, hovering in that difficult space within a narrator who could be not just unreliable but unstable. Or just fiercely feeling – which could be the same thing, I know.
“Everywhere you are I am/And everywhere you are I will hold your hand again/Only you are beautiful, only you are true/I don’t care what they are saying/They can scream their fucking faces blue again.”
That Carnage is credited to Cave and Ellis – a duo whose consistently fascinating soundtrack work moved from sideline to culturally central in the past decade – and not The Bad Seeds, is interesting on a number of levels.
For one thing, both Skeleton Tree and Ghosteen reflected the ability of Cave’s regular Bad Seeds sidemen to withdraw almost to the point of being subliminal. There was no pressing need for clearing space in other words as their subtlety and absence of ego had already done so.
For another, the band albums made since Ellis took over from the now long-since-moved-on Mick Harvey as Cave’s principal musical partner – no mere amanuensis either of them – have been in many ways built around that duo, including the rambunctious side project, Grinderman.
It may be the convenience of proximity, or some other imperative of a Covid year, made this a necessary reality. Abandoning the band seems highly unlikely. But I guess we’ll see.
For now, the walking summary is an album pulled back from the intensity of the personal but not the power of those feelings. It’s stories sometimes being told in analogy and metaphor but never in obscurity. It’s a testament.