Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds - 'Ghosteen' Album Review
1. Spinning Song
2. Bright Horses
3. Waiting For You
4. Night Raid
5. Sun Forest
6. Galleon Ship
7. Ghosteen Speaks
Nick Cave and his Bad Seeds are probably the first band to introduce me to the world of Jazz. I don’t mean Jazz in a e-bop, noise kind of way, I mean more in the way that Jazz musicians would allow a song to grow and develop, almost in a way you would nurture a child. It would be more about what is right for the song, regardless of if that technically wasn’t right. There were always traces of it in their song’s DNA (and I don’t just mean in their slightly tongue in cheek b-side 'That's What Jazz Is To Me') but it was always tempered by the band and Cave’s original Punk influences. The past few years has seen Cave and the Bad Seeds grow and evolve from their original template on gothic murder ballads to a point where now you never quite know what they will deliver sonically, especially after “Push The Sky Away” and "Skeleton Tree", their previous releases which saw the band eschew traditional song structures and arrangements in favour of loops and experimentation, allowing that Jazz sensibility to move more to the front
When Cave announced, quite casually, that the next week he would release a new album "Ghosteen" it was done in such a casual offhand announcement, almost like he was mentioning that he was off to the shops, did we want anything picking up while he was there? Almost immediately we find that it's a digital release with the physical one following next month. Certainly a savvy way of avoiding premature leaks before their proper release. Who would have thought it? Nick Cave is getting the jump on the modern music industry by beating excitable fans and insiders at their own game.
It's an album that carries it's own dark, sombre weight. "Skeleton Tree" will be known forever as the album released not long after the accidental death of Cave's son Arthur, even though most of the work was completed before this. As listeners we still read so much into the album as we listened to it. You couldn't help yourself. This, however, is the band's first real release after not only that tragedy, but it's also their first release after the sad passing last year of Conway Savage, a long term member of The Bad Seeds line up. The grim spectre of death has always informed the band's work, but now it feels as though the artists are drawing directly from the nature of mortality as it sits beside all of them.
“Ghosteen” itself is split into two sections, with Cave calling the first songs "children" and the last "parents". It's clear that things weigh heavy on his shoulders which is understandable. The album starts slow. As the previous album opened with the dark 'Jesus Alone' this album starts with 'Spinning Song', it's oscillating synth sounds give it both a retro and futuristic feel. Cave adopts an almost spoken word vocal using the life of Elvis as a metaphor, possibly for even his own life. It's sombre sounding, the feeling of loss hangs heavy over the song with only Cave's vocal sounding like a traditional Bad Seeds release. By yet end of the song he's singing his song of woe in a falsetto that sounds confident with a choir of voices backing him.
'Bright Horses' slips up beside us, again fuelled by synths but now with a soft piano taking a melodic lead before being joined by a string section that fills the sound out without over whelming it too much. It's still quite delicate and fragile while Cave sings about his "baby coming home now on the 5.30 train" making the mundane sound almost mystical. ‘Waiting For You’ opens with a short loop before resolving it’s into a piano lead. Again, keyboards pulse and wash over the song as Cave sings the song’s title with a forlorn and lonely voice. It’s stark but not bleak, another work of beauty he can add to his library.
Cave and the Bad Seeds have never sounded more in debt to Brian Eno than they do on ‘Night Raid’. You can imagine Bowie and Eno working on something similar during the Thin White Duke’s Berlin period. In fact, there’s a lot of sonic similarities between this album and Bowie’s final album “Blackstar”, with both seeing the artist challenging their artistic and creative process by changing things up while dealing with raw, naked emotions. It feels like Cave has removed any layers of camouflage and disguise that he wears as part of his persona while allowing us, the listener, to hear directly what is going on inside him, sometimes making us feel like a lover, sometimes that we are Cave himself and sometimes like some intrusive voyeur. It is not an easy listen.
An ambient sounding ‘Sun Forest’ creates a sense of wonderment. Since joining the band Warren Ellis has had more and more of an effect on Cave’s music and working processes, often feeling like he has become the band’s musical muse. He has the ability of pushing and developing the Bad Seeds sound into something that doesn’t really sound like the band anymore. This has allowed Cave to push himself as a performer. Occasionally, especially in the late nineties and early naughties (god, how I hate that description) you would occasionally feel like he was bordering on self parody, that he was becoming a tribute act to himself. Now though, Cave is mining a rich vein of creative experimentation which is working so well.
‘Galleon Ship’ sounds like it could have been lifted straight from a David Lynch soundtrack, a sawing violin sound rests on top of the song, a choir helping vocally lift what you could class as the song’s chorus. ‘Ghosteen Speaks’ swirls it’s musical backing as Cave sings “I am beside you, I am beside you, look for me” over it’s soothing sounds, where as the following ‘Leviathan’ throbs softly, with Cave sounding like he’s trying to make sense of his life. There’s the first recognisable sound of percussion here too, not creating a beat or rhythm but again adding something to the feel of the song as it flows and ebbs away like the tide.
The album’s title track clocks in at just over twelve minutes and marks the closing of the first section of the album. It takes it’s time to build its musical themes, allowing the song to slowly grow on a symphony of synthesisers. It washes over you again and again before Nick’s voice is eventually heard almost a third of the way through. The restraint both in the build and the use of Cave’s vocals really create a thing of beauty, especially as he sing’s “Ghosteen dances in my head, slowly twirling twirling all around”. It’s a gentle gothic masterpiece, it’s choir softly building before dropping everything with a “here we go” into a single keyboard part. You feel lost and alone listening to this, your life pulled back out with the tide of the music.
‘Fireflies’ is bleak, Cave’s vocal spoken across the emptiness of the song. “We are fireflies trapped in a little boy’s hand and everything is as distant as the stars” conveys something that seems to speak directly to your soul, and single piano chord ringing out and carrying us until the album’s final song ‘Hollywood’ starts, probably the song sounding closest to Cave’s previous work but even then it’s a distant reminder to what once was. It’s the album’s eulogy, a song looking for something from the previous ten songs but finding only loss and grief. It evokes the feeling of someone waiting for their end to finally draw near, to finally give closure to their life. It grows and develops in such a way that the listener joins in the album’s protagonist in looking for that final moment of closure that will allow us all to move on from this mortal coil, knowing that in that final peace we will achieve some kind of redemption for our lives. “It’s a long way to find peace of mind” he sings over the song’s closing minutes in a gentle falsetto, drawing us ever closer into it’s slow beating heart.
Nick Cave has created something incredibly special and unique in “Ghosteen”. This is an album that could be seen as elevating the medium to a musical art form. You can see this album as closing a musical trilogy that started with “Push The Sky Away” and continued with “Skeleton Tree”. It’s slow and grandiose, and if you’ve come here thanks to ‘Red Right Hand’ being on the “Peaky Blinders” soundtrack then this probably isn’t the album for you to start with. “Ghosteen” is a fire burning down to it’s embers, glowing softly in a dark empty night. It’s both welcoming and dangerous, a composition that draws you in as a listener while also making you feel that little bit uncomfortable because of it’s honesty, even though we really know that deep inside we want to be there. I’ll declare it now, this album will be seen as a classic; it rewards you when you allow yourself to be overcome by the music. It goes from being just ‘another album’, it has grown into so much more than that. It’s a thing of heart breaking beauty, it’s fragility a part of its strength. It’s not an easy listen by any description but it will reward you with what you invest into it. This is, hands down, my album of the year and one of the greatest achievements of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds musical career.
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Review - Scott Hamilton