Review | Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - Ghosteen
It proves hard to listen to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds seventeenth album, Ghosteen. Like Mount Eerie’s A Crow Looked At Me LP, Ghosteen is an expression of pure grief.
In the song ‘Sun Forest’, against swirling synths, Nick Cave sings of loss:
“I lay in the forest amongst the butterflies and the fireflies
And the burning horses and the flaming trees
As a spiral of children climb up to the sun
Waving goodbye to you and goodbye to me
As the past pulls away and the future begins
I say goodbye to all that as the future rolls in
Like a wave, like a wave
And the past with its savage undertow lets go”
Across eleven tracks, we witness a father mourning. Nick Cave’s teenage son died tragically in 2016, during the production of Skeleton Tree, his sixteenth studio album with The Bad Seeds. Ghosteen is a reflection on death, hope, and faith. In past albums, the band had presented the world through a rich, often fantastical world of narrative. In 2016, Skeleton Tree shifted this framework towards abstraction. The new, unbridled potency of Ghosteen lies in its combination of these devices to convey personal emotion. The terms of this combination are defined for us by ‘Spinning Song’, the first track of the album, where we are launched into a sweet story of a fantastical king and queen whose floating castle falls to the ground. When their castle falls, echoes are felt far beyond their magical kingdom. Cave invites the real world of the listener into the ‘fantasy’:
“The feather span upward, upward and upward, spinning all the weathervanes, and you’re sitting at the kitchen table, listening to the radio”
Once inside Cave's world, metaphors become indistinct from heartfelt utterances. In the title track, for example, nursery rhyme transforms into personal scene:
‘Mama bear holds the remote,
Papa bear, he just floats,
And baby bear, he has gone
To the moon on a boat, a boat’
Each song has a distinct narrative, tone, and perspective. It is through this combination that the full weight and beauty of the album is expressed. The mourning father fluctuates between hope and doubt, love and fear. In ‘Sun Forest', a child has escaped the earth to a beautiful sun. In a later song, ‘Galleon Ship’, Cave hopes that he will reach ‘the morning sun’ in a ghostly vessel. However, in ‘Fireflies’ he acknowledges that ‘I am here and you are where you are .. we are fireflies trapped in a little boy’s hand, and everything is dust’, while ‘a star is just a memory of a star’.
There are a thousand of these fluctuations. In the heartbreaking, operatic song ‘Bright Horses', Cave expresses regret that the beautiful dream of ‘holding your hand’ is just that, a dream. He then decides that while ‘the world is plain to see, it doesn’t mean we can’t believe in something, and anyway, my baby’s coming back now on the next train’.
The singing is generally calm, with Cave’s past bravado seemingly deflated by experience. The lyrics, which dominate, are supported by swirling waves of synths, unrelenting drones, and orchestral piano lines. The sonic world is quite rich, with space filled by ethereal mutterings, tinkering percussion, and swooping choirs. Nick Cave's vocals interact and meld with this orchestral background, notably with moments of moving falsetto, as in Sun Forest.
It is arguably the instrumentation that sustains any sense of hope. In 'Ghosteen Speaks', a touching ode to the support of friends, Cave’s line: ‘I think they’re singing to be free .. I think my friends have gathered here for me’ is greeted and echoed by an angelic choir.
Best Song: Fireflies
Worst Song: Leviathan