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review: Nick Cave’s ‘Ghosteen’ finds beauty and hope after darkness

Nick Cave Ghosteen

One of the most iconic images of Nick Cave in the past few years has been the one in the many photographs of him reaching out his hand over a crowd of fans who all have their own hands stretched out towards his. It’s sort of become a symbol of who Nick Cave is as an entertainer at this point. Though he can still seem dark and mysterious in his songs, he has recently been embracing a more interactive relationship with his fans — who he holds in high regard — than ever. He does live Q&As with fans almost as frequently as he performs regular concerts now, and the always-active AMA on his Red Hand Files website has led Nick to reveal interesting things about himself that might not come up in your standard interview with press. And that image of Nick with his hands stretched out over a crowd often comes from fan-shot cellphone photos. While a handful of aging rockers have started to criticize cellphone use at shows or ban them entirely, Nick has not only embraced them but called them a new type of rock & roll photography. A lot of those same aging rockers also mourn the death of the genre, or try extra hard to keep an outdated definition of the genre alive. And though Nick has admitted that rock isn’t what it used to be, the guy who was once known for being a fiery punk-blues frontman isn’t holding on to the past with his music. Forty years into his professional career, he continues to push forward, making music that relies very little on nostalgia and feels as relevant today as From Her to Eternity was in 1984. And with Ghosteen, which concludes the trilogy that began with 2013’s Push the Sky Away and 2016’s Skeleton Tree, he has made the most forward-thinking album of this chapter of his career.

Push the Sky Away followed a five-year gap after 2008’s Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!, which was the Bad Seeds’ last album with founding guitarist Mick Harvey, who had been playing with Nick since the Birthday Party days. And with Mick Harvey’s departure from the band came Nick Cave’s departure from raucous punk-blues. Multi-instrumentalist Warren Ellis stepped up as Nick’s new main collaborator, and the pair began crafting more lush soundscapes than the Bad Seeds had really ever been known for in the past. It makes sense that Nick Cave refers to these last three albums as a trilogy, as Ghosteen really does feel like the culmination of the work he and Warren Ellis began on Push the Sky Away. Push the Sky Away was the most varied of the three albums, with pop songs like album opener “We No Who U R” as well as stream-of-consciousness slow-burners like “Finishing Jubilee Street.” The latter seemed to be a launching point for Skeleton Tree, which tended to favor more formless backdrops and a poetic delivery from Nick, and drifted away from the accessibility of songs like “We No Who U R.” It was also a much darker, sometimes discordant album, and because of its tone and the tragic death of Nick Cave’s teenage son Arthur that occurred about a year before its release, fans and critics tended to attach Arthur’s death to the album, even though Nick insisted most of it had been written prior to the incident. Ghosteen was entirely written after Arthur’s tragic passing, which has led many to speculate that this would be the death album that Skeleton Tree was initially hailed as. And while Ghosteen is very much informed by grief — and even sometimes specifically the grief a parent has for a child, as on the powerful album closer “Hollywood”Ghosteen can’t be pigeonholed any more than Skeleton Tree could.

Ghosteen deals with grief, but an even more dominant theme of the album is love. There are stretches of Nick repeating lines like “And I love you, and I love you, and I love you, and I love you” on album opener “Spinning Song,” or “I love my baby and my baby loves me” on “Leviathan.” Sometimes the songs sound like they might be about the love Nick has for his son, and other times they seem like love songs directly written by Nick for his wife. And because it’s an album from a complex mind like Nick Cave’s, he’s probably not just singing about one particular thing at a time. The loss of his son has of course impacted his songwriting, but not in a way that’s caused him only to write songs about grief. “I have found a way to write beyond the trauma,” Nick says, “that deals with all manner of issues but does not turn its back on the issue of the death of my child. I found with some practise the imagination could propel itself beyond the personal into a state of wonder.” That “state of wonder” is something Nick has talked about with regards to songwriting more than once in the past, and though real-life events will of course always impact songwriting, I think what Nick is saying is that the best songwriting comes when you reach that state, not when you are just reacting to the real-life events. And Nick has seemingly reached that state on Ghosteen.

There are times when Ghosteen sounds autobiographical, but there are also times when Nick’s storytelling veers more closely towards a work of fiction, or at least an allegory. The album is rich with imagery, and metaphor, and symbolism, propelling it much closer to a “state of wonder” than a memoir. “We’re all so sick and tired of seeing things as they are,” Nick sings on “Bright Horses,” and it sounds like it could be commentary on this album as a whole, or on Nick’s life, or on the state of the world we’re living in right now, or none of the above. And perhaps most importantly, it sounds communal rather than personal. “I felt very strongly that the communal suffering, and our ability to transcend it, was the thing that held us together,” Nick said, and maybe that’s part of why he’s become so available and interactive with his fans lately. In many ways, the positivity that Nick has embraced in the aftermath of this tragedy seems to inform the songwriting on Ghosteen as much as the tragedy itself.

There is darkness and suffering on Ghosteen, and weariness in Nick’s voice, but there is also beauty and hope. On the first song, Nick insists, “A peace will come in time.” On the title track, he sings, “The world is beautiful, held within its stars.” Even when Nick offers up more simple lines like “The train is coming […] and it’s bringing my baby right back to me” (“Bright Horses”) and the eponymous chorus of “Waiting For You,” you hear a more profound sense of hope in his voice than you get from reading those words on paper. And on the latter, when Nick sings, “Just want to stay in the business of making you happy,” it’s one of the most purely beautiful lines in a love song released this year.

Even when Nick’s voice is at its most wearied, the musical backdrop remains as bright and lush as the sun-drenched greenery of the album artwork. Behind Nick’s commanding delivery are gorgeous falsetto harmonies, stirring string arrangements, graceful piano lines, and ambient textures (and very little percussion) that set the stage for the most downright beautiful album Nick Cave has released not just this decade but in many years. It’s an even more atmospheric album than Skeleton Tree, with nothing even close to a pop song in sight, but its breathtaking beauty makes it just as welcoming as “We No Who U R” in its own way. Ghosteen also seems, sound-wise, like the most deliberately focused album of the trilogy, with each song sticking to a distinct, established vibe. Not until album closer “Hollywood,” where the Bad Seeds provide the album’s most ominous musical backdrop as Nick tells the story of a woman forced to bury her baby, does Ghosteen stray from its bright, gorgeous atmosphere.

It makes sense that Nick chose to debut the album as one continuous lyric video livestream with no pre-release singles. Each song tells its own story, but they are all connected and they all flow perfectly into each other and come together to create one piece. Ghosteen is a double album split into two parts, but it’s more like a two-act play with an intermission than two companion albums packaged together. (And the video version of the album actually includes an intermission worked in, though the version on streaming services does not.) Album closer “Hollywood” drifts off with Nick singing “And I’m just waiting now, for peace to come…,” calling back to the album’s very first song. Sometimes double albums inspire skipping around, but Ghosteen hits hardest when played from start to finish.

Not only was Ghosteen‘s livestream debut the perfect way for the album to be unveiled, its whole rollout was the perfect fit for who Nick Cave is an artist today. He didn’t announce the album on social media or with a press release or with some over-the-top gradual rollout. He casually responded to a fan asking “when can we expect a new album?” on his Red Hand Files website, saying “you can expect a new album next week.” And when, with little warning, he chose to debut the album on a global livestream a few hours before its official release, he became a rare veteran artist to successfully pull of an Event Album. It’s not unusual for artists who are 40 years into their career to be held afloat by live shows that are full of classic songs, but Nick Cave has the ability to gather tens of thousands of fans around a livestream of a new album and stir up genuine excitement in the process. And even though Nick’s fanbase is diehard enough to tune in no matter what, it would’ve felt anticlimactic if Ghosteen wasn’t as stunning an album as it is. It’s not just a great album for an artist 40 years into their career, but a great album in general. And it’s not a repeat of any of Nick Cave’s more classic works, or even a repeat of the other two albums in his recent trilogy. It’s truly something new, and also something that ties together all three albums in the trilogy. Push The Sky Away and Skeleton Tree can sometimes feel drastically different from each other. With the introduction of Ghosteen, it now all makes sense that those two albums were working towards the same conclusion.

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