Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
Ethereal hasn’t often been a word used to describe Nick Cave. From post punk provocateur to preaching poet, Saint Nick’s been the Prince of Darkness to many; a goth rock icon capable of the sort of longevity even his idol Leonard Cohen would have been impressed by. But somewhere around the title track for 2013’s Push the Sky Away, then again throughout the grieving arrangements on 2016’s Skeleton Tree, Cave found light not in gospel blues or loud emotional catharsis, but rather in the ethereal process of letting go. Of stripping back. Of otherworldly synthesizers and dream-state meditations. Heavens above, on his latest album Ghosteen he frequently sings in falsetto.
The first Bad Seeds album written entirely following the death of Cave’s son, who fell from a cliff aged 15, initially Ghosteen feels very much like a continuation of Skeleton Tree. Cave himself has stated it is is the final piece in a trilogy that started with Push the Sky Away, but the links to Skeleton Tree are more obvious both in its themes and execution. The Ghosteen of the title is itself a 12 minute epic and one of Cave’s finest ever songs. Its name is an obvious enough reference to his late son (the ghost teen), but Cave doesn’t rely on vagaries elsewhere, either. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself choking up to verses like “Mama bear holds the remote/ Papa bear, he just floats/ And baby bear, he has gone/ To the moon in a boat”.
Ghosteen (the song) kicks off the three-track second half of this double album, and alongside 14 minute finale Hollywood they deliver an epilogue so profound you won’t mind the effort it takes to get there. Hollywood‘s final minutes recount Buddhist tale The Mustard Seed, the story of a mother, Kisa, whose baby has died. Cave elicits her trauma with a haunting falsetto that culminates in the refrain “It’s a long way to find peace of mind”. It’s a rare moment of melodic clarity on an album that’s mostly free of even the storyteller hooks Cave specialises in. A fitting finale, paired with the equally ambitious Ghosteen it screams greatness as much as it cries despair.
The journey to get there is no less inspired. Across eight shorter songs, the first half pairs Cave’s padded keys and piano with the magical synth arrangements of Warren Ellis, while the rest of the Bad Seeds largely step back. Opener Spinning Song – sounding as if it’s set on an otherworldly space station – is lyrically the most riveting piece here. A revisionist tale, Cave imagines himself as Elvis Presley “crashed on a stage in Vegas” before settling into theme, intoning “peace will come in time” and “a time will come for us”. On Waiting For You he contemplates the different timelines for grief between he and wife Susie Bick. Ghosteen Speaks finds Cave sitting beside his late son, who encourages him to “look for me” from beyond the grave. Towering twin centrepieces Sun Forest and Galleon Ship approach post rock territory, and they are powerful despite the fact their peaks are gentle.
Ambient for the most-part, it will challenge those listeners wondering where the hooks are, and become background music for others. Those prepared to immerse themselves in its wondrous beauty will find no better way than the Ghosteen YouTube video that last week doubled as the album’s global premiere (watch it below). Effectively it plays out like a film length lyric video. Put it on your TV and revel in the poetry; the depth of layers; the majesty of something so pure it can no longer live.
Ethereal but not ecstatic, there’s really no other album like it in the pantheon of rock and roll. To create art so aching, vulnerable and beautiful from a horror so unimaginable is one thing, but Cave’s ability to evolve is simply unmatched. To paraphrase Jubilee Street, going back to the beginning of this remarkable three album trilogy: He’s transforming. He’s vibrating. Look at him now.