I wrote these notes upon a first listening to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ Ghosteen. I tried to evolve the words into something else and could not seem to move far past the notes and responses I first had. Ghosteen is so big and deep it’s hard to box it into what passes for a review conventionally. I may be wrong about a few things here, in what I say and how I say it. But I decided to just let the notes work in their own way, to serve as a map of the journey I took listening to the record. I think Ghosteen is a masterpiece – but it is not a record that fits into a contemporary musical landscape that most people are familiar with. I hope what I’ve written is of some value or interest, another light on it all. ‘Let’s go.’
Part one –
“And we leaned out of the window as the rain fell on the street.”
It sounds like a true story, the ones that beautiful books and films are based upon. The music of ‘Night Raid’ forms as a ghost musical of an actual street… tram bells ringing, the slipping sound of passing traffic on a wet road, an avenue remade in space and ambient textures.
I see it; I feel it like somewhere I know. A song that goes deep inside, among the many pieces of music across this album that similarly permeate you – or drift into the ether for those who may hear them better elsewhere.
Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds new double album Ghosteen begins on a drone, very faintly suggesting a didgeridoo, an old earth sound inside an analogue synth oscillation. There’s talk of “a king with jelly black hair”, a queen attending to her garden and a tree, a nest, a bird, a wing, a feather. “The king in time died.” The feather flies upwards. So the story goes.
An organ moves in on these words. The sound puts me inside an empty church somewhere. I think to myself, death can eat the heart before the body. Nick Cave sings “I love you” over and again, till his voice fractures into a falsetto… “Peace will come. Time will come for us.”
It’s called ‘Spinning Song’. And Cave is once again on the precipice of Elvis Presley’s iconography as the king of rock ‘n’ roll. But instead of royal and wild beginnings, Cave has fallen into this dark fairytale. Maybe this is a song from the future; a future where Cave was the last ebb of what began for him in a rock ‘n’ roll fantasy long ago.
‘Bright Horses’ admits the divine, or more accurately our hunger to believe in something magical. Then it evolves into a remnant version of some classic waiting-for-the-train love song that Cave must have heard a hundred times before. “My baby’s coming home on the 5.30 train.” It’s so beautiful, the piano that he plays, but he stays waiting – and so do we. Hoping. Believing in a dream that is almost with us.
The next song, ‘Waiting for You’, sees Cave arriving at a beach after a long night’s drive with his beloved. “I just want to stay in the business of making you happy,” he says. Then, in a cracked voice, he repeats that he’s “waiting for you”. So much waiting in the lyrics, the music of this record.
Religious imagery emerges about the return of Jesus – but it’s from “a Jesus freak on the street”. There’s an implication religious faith is near to a madness, though this madness is something you might come to need. And that love could be something similar – a much nearer, and far more real feeling than any notion of God, but just as futile once it’s gone. “Waiting for you”… Not the God of religion or love; but the Jesus of love lost. God the son. That’s who Cave has his faith in.
Cave leans out the window into the rain. ‘Night Raid’ has begun. A woman or a child is “as skinny as a wafer”. Here is a communion in body and soul. Real life is almost too beautiful to bear. This most precious of things: a small moment in time you almost forgot. More alive now than ever in a memory.
The overwhelming force of Cave’s immersion in poetry over this last decade is on full display across Ghosteen. It is less a rock ‘n’ roll album – if it can be called a rock ‘n’ roll album at all – than an especially dark and beautiful musical, a troubled symphony outside of its time and place.
A classical reference like Mahler’s 1904 work, Songs on the Deaths of Children, is possibly more appropriate. Or a more contemporary work like John Adams’ On the Transmigration of Souls. I hear traces of a song like ‘Magneto’ from Skeleton Tree as as an origin point for much that is here… and despite all the darkness on Ghosteen, a terrible joy in creativity too; an absolutely lost, yet inextinguishable love. Time gone; time ever-present.
The mystery of this is so strong you can almost smell the rain on the street as Cave sings it up like some magus inside the night-pouring beauty of ‘Night Raid’.
On ‘Sun Forest’ the music stays beautiful, with a faint hiss to the rhythm, like matches being put out in water, or bees buzzing their way into life out of sine waves. Cave’s piano work is steady as a funeral step, melding with the synth ambiences from Warren Ellis. “As the past pulls away and the future begins,” Cave sings. But the past has “a savage undertow”. He then says, in a way that sounds brave, “Let’s go”. But it’s hard to know which direction he is going in, back or forwards.
Cave sings that “a spiral of children climbs up to the sun”. A choir encircles his words. Voices gather across Ghosteen repeatedly in this way – either holding Cave up, or haunting him.
There are many horses described on the record, all of them bright and burning. Jesus, time and again, is called into being and pondered over, the Son who gave himself up to save us. The value of love is affirmed to an agony point.
In ‘Sun Forest’ Cave ghosts himself, his voice keening away as if rising from a 19th century lullaby: “I am here beside you”. The music sounds like something is broken as it ends, repeating and operating without full meaning. The human heart is just a pump after all.
‘Galleon Ship’ is surely a ghost ship. Voices haunt the song like old broadcasts afloat in their own wavelengths. References suggest an armada of sorrow, the suffering and persistence of many on similar voyages around Cave. A soaring string arrangement starts to come in, but it decreases, too solitary in its rise and fall to make it through, till it melts into a church organ again.
‘Ghosteen Speaks’. So the song title says. But who is Ghosteen? The “migrating spirit”? Cave’s son Arthur, lost so tragically? Or Cave himself, an en-ghosted being here on this earth, inside these songs? Soul damaged.
This is the music and language of love lost in the most profound and awful way – yet it is also a love that exists in moments of genuine rapture, reaching across death and moving towards it. There is what sounds like a chorus of the dead behind Cave as he sings: “I am inside you, you are inside me. I am beside you. You are beside me.”
‘Leviathan’. Cave returns to the sea again with his beloved. Drives there to a carpark (prosaic, real, remembered). He just sits there, sings, “I love my baby and my baby loves me.”
Cave builds many of the songs on Ghosteen out of key utterances like this, utterances as binding as a rosary incantation. The music has what sounds like tabla underlining it, and more of those choral sighs that sound like lost, spiritual voices from the other side. You can feel the end of the day, a sunset at sea, a darkening in this song. Two human beings in the face of infinity.
Part two –
‘Ghosteen’ begins. He is on his way. A last day. Forever in that day. Moments of discoloured, tilting strings suggest a vast and lonely terrain is being crossed. From coolness to coldness. It is far to walk.
Yet when Cave starts to sing, a humanity comes through that feels impossible to defeat: “The stars in your eyes I loved them right from the start… and I keep them in my heart.”
Something breaks like a chime in the song. A rising chorus brings veneration and ascent, not the bleakness the terrain of the music first suggested.
“There goes the moon with a suitcase in his hand. Things tend to fall apart starting with your heart.”
The journey is longer and bigger still. “You’re in that back room washing his clothes.” How much love is in that image and action? A mother and her son; an act of grieving.
For all the poetry here, the intense intimacy of the imagery can be very painful to hear. I can’t work out where the song ‘Ghosteen’ lives – as an attempt at consolation for what is inconsolable; as an appeal for forgiveness for what can’t even be fully grasped.
‘Fireflies’ returns us to the forest, a metaphor for a netherworld. “We are fireflies trapped in a little boy’s hand.” Piano notes, dark and hymnal, then sharp and clear as glass. “A star is just a memory of a star. We are here and you are where you are.”
Then to the last song, ‘Hollywood’. It pulses like a heartbeat, with a secret quickening and subsiding energy amid its layers, a living and a dying. ‘Hollywood’ sounds like a man fleeing . “Little room for wonder now. Little room for wildness too.”
Nick Cave’s ‘Higgs Boson Blues’ are no longer opening up the mysteries of the universe. Those mysteries are closing down. Welcome to the goodbye mass. To something beautiful and desperate; something in search of absolution or release – or whatever such words might mean in a cold place where language and song cannot ever go – but here, those words, this music, are seeking and reaching for it anyway. “It’s a long way to find peace of mind.”
– Mark Mordue