Nick Cave Confronts His Grief Head-On with "Ghosteen"
by James Ammirato
Nick Cave’s music wasn’t always like this. Sure, there have always been incredible story arcs, fantastically dark figures, and the ever-present themes of death and love, but never like this; never as painfully real as Ghosteen.
Whenever people ask me where they should start in The Bad Seeds’ vast discography, I always say to start from the beginning. Everyone has different favorites, and each record has its place in the canon of Cave’s songwriting, but to truly appreciate his current work, contextualization is a must. Ghosteen is a beautiful record, even better is hearing the band’s output begin ugly and raw, then over decades mature, now much more majestic and deliberate, a swan in its own right.
When Ghosteen was announced, he spoke of the album concisely, saying only “Ghosteen is a migrating spirit,” and that the second disc of the double album is comprised of two songs described as the “parents” of the songs on the first disc. The statement’s minimalism speaks for the record, which as a whole says so much while also doing so little in comparison to the composition of some of the band’s previous records.
We’ve seen many metamorphoses in the history of the band. The first seven or so records are gothic, containing delta blues and post-punk, even industrial instrumentation at times. Let Love In (1994) showed Cave at his most volatile and lust-driven, followed by the haunting Murder Ballads (1996). After his relationship with PJ Harvey dissolved in the mid-90’s, The Boatman’s Call (1997) was born, a piano-ballad driven album showing a new, more introspective side to the frontman, and a recession from the Bad Seeds. Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! (2008) was a comeback for the band, a theatrical release that highlighted Cave’s love for the dramatic. 2016’s Skeleton Tree, released the year after Cave’s son Arthur’s tragic death, was a complete instrumental shift, featuring more electronic production than had ever been used by the collective, and arguably their most experimental work to date. Now, with Ghosteen, we see them furthering their descent into the electronic, minimalist realm.
Like Skeleton Tree, Ghosteen is mostly about Cave’s son. But where the former looks into the mind of someone immediately after a great loss, the latter meditates on it. Twice as long, twice as stripped down, Ghosteen marks a new Nick Cave, one that can never return from this new realized state.
Kicking things off with “Spinning Song,” we immediately hear the lack of a band. Where previously there were natural instruments, now exists soundscape and ambient synth work to backdrop Cave’s baritone, aged like a fine wine. This highlights that this album’s lyrics are the ones to be cued in on. When all other aspects are taken away, Cave’s narrative remains. “There is no lord” is a surprising addition to the Nick Cave lyric book, not something we’ve ever heard the writer express, further setting this album apart from all the rest. “Peace will come, and peace will come,” he croons, more of a self-assured mantra than an addressing of the audience.
Cave’s fragile falsetto is again highlighted on tracks like “Bright Horses,” a cut rich with symbolism that the frontman conjures and then rips away. Before, all of his imagery, though fabricated, was made to seem real, alive. Now when he creates the image of these bright horses, with “their manes full of fire,” he clarifies yet a stanza later that the “horses are just horses, and their manes aren’t full of fire.” Here we see a new lyrical strategy from Cave, where nothing is fantasy, and we are forced to meet an image as it is head on. Thematically, this struggle pervades every corner of the record, and because of it, we’re able to see Cave confronting his grief firsthand. Through his literal imagery he takes us along for the ride.
“Sun Forest” begins with a two minute ambient intro reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” or Brian Eno’s synth oriented work, so delicate that it feels shattered by the sheer force of the first piano note. Of all the tracks on the record, this one contains the most imagery that relates to movement, leading us to believe that Cave is referencing an acceptance in his life, or the ability for him to move on. From butterflies and fireflies come burning horses and flaming trees, and a spiral of children that leads up to the sky, visuals that parallel perfectly with the absurd feeling of losing a loved one. The final section of the verse, “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,” details the acceptance that Cave has gone through in recent years.
The atmospheric backgrounds to the album are often a focal point, counteracting Cave’s vocals in a constant yin-yang relationship throughout the duration. Since the percussion on the record is so scarce, when it eventually appears it’s that much more impactful on the listener’s ever-attentive ears. The bells on “Night Raid” are a high point, so solitary they could have been recorded atop a mountain, or alone in a cathedral. The song itself feels like a sermon, and Cave stands alone preaching, a faint choir filling out the vocal section.
The second disc, composed only of the lengthy tracks “Ghosteen” and “Hollywood,” and bridged by the spoken word piece “Fireflies,” is a masterpiece unto itself. Both the giants contain multiple narratives, explaining Cave’s reasoning behind dubbing them “the parents” of the songs on the first disc. After a 4-minute intro on the album’s title track that sounds much closer to a piece of a movie’s score than a Bad Seeds’ song, Cave breaks the vocal drought with “This world is beautiful,” and we as the audience are immediately overcome by the pain in his voice. After going through such a loss, it’s astounding that one is able to have such an outlook on the world. Such a will is unbelievable, and this moment encapsulates the ethos of the whole record perfectly.
Within “Ghosteen” and “Hollywood,” we have multiple characters and narratives operating separately, but in conjunction with one another. In “Ghosteen,” there is the title character, dancing in the hand of Nick Cave, as well as “the moonlit man” and the three bears. Though all these characters are members of different narratives, they become one and the same by the end of the song. We can infer that Ghosteen is Cave’s son, while the moonlit man is Cave, and the three bears are his family. The moonlit man “kisses you lightly and he leaves / Leaves your sleeping body,” signifying Cave’s own ability to move past this tragedy that has befallen his family. Meanwhile, baby bear “has gone / To the moon in a boat,” an image with a childlike, almost dreamlike quality, but one that weighs heavy on our ears, and even we find it difficult to accept this reality, though we are fully removed from the situation. Acceptance of grief is important, but what’s important to remember is the memory of what we’ve lost. This is the crux of the song, and as the song winds down, we’re reminded of this by Cave’s simple yet impactful lyrics; “There’s nothing wrong with loving things / That cannot even stand.”
“Fireflies” acts as a bridge between the two pillars. Read as a poem, the piece contains some of the more thought provoking and poetic lines on the whole record, and they are hammered into our heads over and over, some repeated or rephrased throughout the length of the song. “A star is just a memory of a star / We are fireflies pulsing dimly in the dark / We are here and you are where you are,” Cave states plainly, each idea stripped down to its barest essentials.
On the other side of the bridge lies “Hollywood,” the last and longest track on the record. The first half of the song, Cave narrates a life of prosperity, in which he buys a house with a pool and “a gun that kills,” but all the while he “waits for his time to come,” never satisfied with life after his great loss. The final section of the first half details Cave standing on the shore, watching a child run “into the sun” and never return, the final image of the album that Cave himself appears in. After this, for the final four minutes, the singer tells the story of Kisa, who lived at the same time as Buddha. The story goes that Kisa had a child die, and was in such great denial, that her village thought her insane. She went to the Buddha, who told her he could bring her son back if she retrieved a mustard seed from a family who had never had anyone die. She of course was unable to do this, and this is how she realized that death is a part of life, and everyone experiences painful loss. After this, she accepts her reality and buries her son. By making this the final thought on the record, the reader is shown that this has been Cave’s most difficult experience to go through in life, and this parallel to the story is what he wants us to remember. The final lines of the record are “And I'm just waiting now, for my time to come / And I'm just waiting now, for peace to come,” the same as the final line in “Spinning Song,” establishing the record as a cyclical piece of art, like life and death.
Ghosteen is a unique record, currently an anomaly in the Bad Seeds’ discography. A beautiful follow up to Skeleton Tree, it also completes the trilogy that Cave said began with 2013’s Push The Sky Away. With a complete shift in musical direction, it’s always hard to pinpoint where exactly we are in the band’s lifetime, and the level of evolution happening in the ensemble doesn’t resemble any sign of running out of steam. It’s inspiring that Nick Cave remains one of the most innovative and adaptive songwriters in history, Ghosteen being a clear representation of his artistic abilities even this far into a long, illustrious career.