NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS – GHOSTEEN
Ghosteen Ltd./Bad Seed Ltd., 2019
I really could not have asked for a better year to start reviewing music. Several artists have put out their best work so far, others have released comeback albums (some good, some bad), others still have released very impressive debuts, I’ve even had the delightful pleasure of ripping a few albums to shreds. And now, in addition to all that, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds release a new album. What a time to be alive.
Nick Cave is an Australian singer and songwriter who has been active for over 40 years. He started in a noisy garage rock band that eventually became the post-punk band The Birthday Party. After this band broke up in the mid-’80s, he formed the Bad Seeds, a band whose approach to Gothic rock is more Flannery O’Connor than Siouxsie Sioux. He has a penchant for writing 7 minute songs with graphic lyrics about love, death, and God, and he’s one of the most revered lyricists in rock music. Cave is an artist for fans who value songwriting. He’s almost universally loved by music nerds, similar to other songwriters like Leonard Cohen or Tom Waits.
Ghosteen is the seventeenth studio album released by Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, and I’m honestly a little nervous to be reviewing it. I’ve joked on social media that I feel like my reputation as a music nerd and reviewer is on the line. Cave’s music is often met with critical acclaim, and before I ever had a chance to listen to Ghosteen, five publications had given it a perfect score. If I’m perfectly honest, I wasn’t very familiar with Cave’s music going into this. I always had a respect for it and knew a handful of songs, but never did a deep dive into the discography or any single album. So this review has a bit more research behind it than others.
Cave says that Ghosteen completes a trilogy started with 2013’s Push the Sky Away and 2016’s Skeleton Tree, but it pairs better stylistically with the latter. Cave’s teenage son tragically died while Skeleton Tree was being recorded, and many view the album’s stark, ambient, and experimental backing and its more abstract and poetic lyrics as reactionary and a catharsis for Cave in the wake of the tragedy. Ghosteen has similarly sparse and ambient instrumentals and poetic lyrics, but dissonance and the raw pain of loss are replaced with hope and beauty.
Long-time Bad Seed Warren Ellis works with Cave to craft ambient soundscapes with analog synthesizers at their foundation. These are frequently more inviting than those on Skeleton Tree, but no less somber. At times they even sound spacey, like the soundtrack to a sci-fi film from the ’70s. Little more makes up the instrumentals of this album; piano appears on several tracks and there’s an occasional flourish of strings.
Lyrically, Ghosteen again continues in a similar vein to Skeleton Tree. Where the majority of Cave’s lyrics in the past were more narrative, focusing on characters and the dark situations that develop them, his recent output has been comparatively more abstract, striking at an emotion rather than a story. The theme of Ghosteen again is grief, but instead of the raw and visceral reaction in the moment of tragedy as heard on Skeleton Tree, these are the songs of someone who has had a few years to process that grief. Many of the lyrics have to do with coming to terms with the reality of what has happened (“Sun Forest,” “Ghosteen,” and “Hollywood”) or the support one seeks and needs from loved ones in these moments (“Waiting for You” and “Leviathan”). There’s even a track where it appears the spirit of Cave’s son is speaking with him, reminding him that he is still with him in some way (“Ghosteen Speaks”).
Truly, one of the great triumphs of Ghosteen is the title track that opens the second part of the double album. It’s a 12 minute epic that effortlessly moves between synth-laden ambiance, piano balladry, and occasional hints of prog. Cave’s allegorical lyrics take you on a journey through the pain and grief and eventual acceptance in the aftermath of a great loss. It’s a great distillation of the emotions and themes of the tracks that came before.
My only criticism is that in the first couple spins of this album, the tracks “Ghosteen Speaks” and “Leviathan,” the closing moments of the first part, seemed weak in comparison to the rest of the album with the former’s ghostly wails and the latter’s repetitive refrain. However, further listening and analysis revealed the purpose for these decisions and the songs began to make more sense in the context of the album as a whole.
Scoring this album has been exceedingly difficult. On one hand, understanding the context and doing a proper deep dive into the album and its lyrics is very rewarding. It offers a beautiful and poignant expression of loss and grief in a way that only Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds can provide, and the experience is enhanced when it’s paired with Skeleton Tree. However not every listener is going to do the work required to see that. Despite all its beauty and craftsmanship, Ghosteen is not necessarily accessible or a joyful listen, and that might put some listeners off. There’s also no denying that, while it makes sense in the context of the album, “Leviathan” is the weakest track. None of this changes my opinion that Ghosteen is probably the closest thing to a perfect album that I’ve heard this year.