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  • Writer's pictureMartin Vaux

Album Review: Ghosteen by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds

Updated: Oct 16, 2019

The new double-album from Brighton resident Nick Cave and his band, The Bad Seeds, is a shimmering phantasmagoria of joy and grief – a spiritual journey to paradise on the back of one of music’s great pilgrims.

Remember when Nick Cave was a simple artist who wrote throwaway rock n’ roll songs that people just loved?

No, you don’t. Because Nick Cave has never been that person.

Let’s try again: Remember when Nick Cave was a glowering balladeer, part-Elvis, part-Berlin-era-Iggy Pop?

Back then it was all goth poetry, broken hearts, doom and beauty. Pianos, guitars, drums, emptiness… Remember that? God, it was great.

Then, of course, he evolved to become a kind of born-again gospel maniac – a lunatic preacher, restless in his meatless limbs, gambolling through life like Lazarus, born again into post-Antipodean marriage and family life.

God, that era was great too.

And now, where are we? Deep into the post-Mick Harvey era, where digital instruments are the order of the day. After the bright and anxious profundities of 2013’s Push the Sky Away and the throbbing electronic hauntings of 2016’s Skeleton Tree.

After the death of Cave’s son, Arthur, in 2015.

The source of those hauntings.

The reason for those echoes that won’t go away. The ones that leave our raconteur staring ahead, alone, into the invisible dreams of a great beyond, looking for some kind of peace.

With all this is mind, while Ghosteen can be enjoyed without having listened to Skeleton Tree, I would argue that this record rather follows in the wake of that one.

Or, should I say, follows the wake that is that one…

You can probably love this album without knowing much about Nick Cave, either. Without loving the back catalogue, or understanding the depths of significance to be drawn from mentions of particular forms of nauticalia or, indeed, the risen Christ in his music.

For me, I have loved him since I was a young teenager. I love him so much that when I have been in the same room as him, as has happened on multiple occasions, I have felt far too star-struck to speak to him.

Apart from that one time where I showed him to the toilet – an interaction that was probably not as profound for him as it was for me.

Although goodness knows how pressing his need was at the time.

Anyway, when it comes to Ghosteen, there is a lot to take in. The album has two sides – the first, also known as ‘The Children’ and the second, also known as ‘The Parents’, an allusion to the sequence of the recording sessions – the Parents came first, then the Children.

The second side is only three tracks – two long ballads wrapped around a spoken word piece – and it backs a hefty, hefty punch. I listened to it on headphones and had to lie down. I cried several times. It’s amazing. I can understand why it wasn’t just the album in isolation, but I think it will be the part I listen to most.

The first side is a more traditional LP in some respects, but even that one sits heavy on the chest and is hardly conventional. There are recurring motifs, images that spiral and haunt… Fire, the sun, horses, the ocean, stigmatic open hands, and Jesus coming back to life, encouraging belief in miracles.

Heaven. Eden. Redemption expected, at an empty train platform or as a ghost, beside you often but not always, singing into your ear.

It’s sad, sure, but I would not want to suggest that the album is maudlin. Ecstatic, perhaps? I mean, the subject matter is profound, but unlike Skeleton Tree, which was matte black and painfully sombre, this album is resurgent and bathed in white sonic light. It is an escalating coil of pearly colours, layered, lively, iridescent and surreal.

Musically, it is – whisper it – very much a prog album. It feels like Peter Gabriel, Brian Eno, or late-stage Bowie with more computers and less brass. Pianos are still Cave’s weapon of choice, but the palette is very rich, punched through by Warren Ellis’ voice in moments that are absolutely, ruinously emotional.

Honestly, I was left a wreck by it.

There are obvious high points too. Bright Horses is just… well, it’s not just anything, but it’s one of the best songs I have heard all year.

Have a listen:

It’s like Thom Yorke and Leonard Cohen conspired to rip my heart out and crush it between their fists.

Needless to say, I love this album. It’s incredible, and essential, and mature, and weighty. I recommend that you listen to it – that you stop whatever it is you are doing, and listen to it.

And when you do, if you find yourself lying flat on the floor, crying in paroxysms of the wildest kind of love, don’t worry. That’s normal.

Now sing it with me, “Everyone has a heart, and it’s calling for something…”

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