For more than four decades Nick Cave has spun out a lyrical universe that has ensnared countless fans like flies in a web. At the beginning of his career his songs were cracked Faulknerian operas, complete narratives full of crazed priests, consumptive prostitutes, whiskey and murder. As he wore on, the absurdly versatile Bad Seeds became something closer to Foley artists than backing band; projecting heady shadows onto the blood-flecked cinema screen of Cave’s obsessions.
Soon however this pitch-black worldview began to be shot through with rays of brilliant dawn. His public image became completely merged with in his stage presence with the man increasingly subsumed by his legend to an extent not seen outside of Tom Waits (and inside of Tom Waits is too dark to see anyway). Gradually Cave found he had an unexpected, Leonard Cohen-esque way with a love song and began to compose on the piano rather than focusing exclusively on lyrics.
Whilst uncompromising in following his muse, he achieved greater and greater public success; with the one time Prince of Darkness selling out stadiums around the world. Gradually, the deeply structured narratives that were the heart of the songs that made him famous began to unwind into a more stream of consciousness based approach. Decades into his career, he was suddenly no longer interested in telling stories, instead weaving impressionistic set pieces pregnant with bizarre counterpoints and sardonic humour. As such, it a piercingly cruel irony when the narrative of his own life suddenly flashed down on him like a guillotine when his 15 year old son Arthur plummeted to his death off a cliff face, whilst high on LSD.
Naturally reeling, the songwriter found himself bereft of inspiration in the wake of the unthinkable loss. The majority of 2016’s magisterial Skeleton Tree had already been written before Arthur’s death and whilst that album throbbed with pain, Cave was afraid that he would be unable to continue to write. Though Ghosteen, his seventeenth album, is certainly proof that these fears were baseless, his style does seem to have undergone a tectonic shift that feels permanent, as he overcame his writers block by letting his imagination “propel itself beyond the personal into a state of wonder.”
On Ghosteen Cave’s voice floats above his mournful piano, buoyed up tidal wash of synths and buttressed by echoing vibraphone; the nearly percussion free record occasionally only a short step away from a full ambient wash. The album takes the bruised soul of Skeleton Tree and blows it up to a monolithic size. It’s only fitting that Cave seems very small and weak in the face of all of Ghosteen’s swirl of beauty and suffering. Indeed the owner of one of the most famously stentorian baritones in rock practically abandons his authoritative boom over the course of the record, instead crooning in a delicate tremulous falsetto that flutters like a baby bird.
It’s very easy to assume that Ghosteen will be a punishing listen considering its grim subject matter. Grief is certainly the record’s central pillar, yet the ‘wonder’ Cave mentioned is ever present in the album. The pain of familial death is counterbalanced by a new-found intoxication with the beauty of life and love. If this record is a delve into an unthinkable abyss, than it’s one that overflows with blinding light rather than shadow. Ghosteen is a double album, Cave describes the first eight songs, as “the children”; whilst the second part of the album contains two longer songs and a spoken-word track, which he describes as “their parents”. To put it less cryptically, the three songs on the second album are the most pained, dark clouds blotting out the vista entirely: “I was halfway to the pacific coast/I had left you in your longing and your yearning like a ghost” he sings of his retreat to Los Angeles from a Brighton haunted by the death of his son. At the end, his voice shattered and exhausted comes a worryingly ambiguous refrain: “And I’m just waiting now, for my time to come”
By comparison the first half of the album has songs charged with a warmth and humanity that would seem unimaginable to the haunted singer of Hollywood. On “The Spinning Song” the offers a picaresque tale of Elvis andPriscilla Presley as a metaphor for the deathless power of art in comparison to artist. Elvis is well-trodden lyrical territory for Cave but that familiarity is just another way of measuring just how much he has changed from the junkyard messiah proclaiming The King’s apocalyptic return on Tupelo.
Over four decades Cave has amassed an intimidating body of work, with only one record (Nocturama) that doesn’t live up to the hype. For a neophyte the sheer amount of content he has built up can make him an intimidating prospect to explore, diving into Ghosteen without understanding the narrative built up over twenty albums and three bands is a frightening prospect. Still if Ghosteen proves anything, it’s that the narrative doesn’t matter. If you have felt pain and marvelled at beauty then this is a record for you.