“There are some people trying to find out who / There are some people trying to find out why,” Nick Cave announces on ‘Carnage’ opener ‘Hand Of God’, “there are some people who aren’t trying to find anything, but that kingdom in the sky”. Once fans are over their giddy joy at a surprise new album, they’ll soon be poring over this record for answers. What is Cave looking for now? What does he still have left to prove?
Having always traded in mythology, Cave’s work seemed to map a more explicitly autobiographical route on recent albums. The devastating 2016’s ‘Skeleton Tree’ was coloured by the tragic death of his 15-year-old son Arthur, and 2019’s spectral ‘Ghosteen’ was seen as a more considered processing of grief and what really matters. This time, as Cave told fans via his blog-meets-Q&A-service The Red Hand Files, ‘Carnage’ emerged from his “taking stock” of life when the pandemic pulled The Bad Seeds from the road. The result is what he describes as “a brutal but very beautiful record embedded in a communal catastrophe”.
This is not a Bad Seeds record like many fans were expecting, but a collaboration between Cave and Warren Ellis; not that it loses anything as a result. A Bad Seed since 1997, the multi-instrumentalist has long flanked Cave not only as his maniacal right-hand man on stage, but also a partner in songwriting in most of his musical endeavours – including filth-rock side project Grinderman and most of his many TV, film and theatre scores. Since they met their dynamic has been that Cave creates a cast of characters and Ellis makes them dance.
In the 2014 fact-meets-fantasy music doc 20,000 Days On Earth, Cave says that Ellis helps him overcome the “loneliness” of songwriting and that he “makes the process so much more enjoyable and fruitful”. The 2016 film One More Time With Feeling, which documents the making of the making of ‘Skeleton Tree’ in the wake of Arthur’s death, showed how loving, protective and connected Ellis was to Cave. They’re as close to creative soulmates as you could imagine. ‘Carnage’, their first non-soundtrack album released as a duo, carries their shared spirit to strange and bewildering new places, to reflect these strange and bewildering times.
Following the sparse ‘Ghosteen’, ‘Carnage’ quickly gets back to business with a lot more bite, but no less adventure. Opener ‘Hand Of God’ boasts an alien, electro-trance pulse, as Cave sings of being overwhelmed by the driving power of nature, unseen forces and a higher power. That dark rhythm continues into the jazzy shuffle of ‘Old Time’, which depicts a harrowing fever dream where “the trees are black and history has dragged us down to our knees”; he longs for the times of being able to drive away into the sunset to escape. Respite soon comes on the achingly tender title track where Cave finds the light: “And it’s only love with a little bit of rain / And I hope to see you again”.
Album highlight ‘White Elephant’ is one of Cave’s more explicitly political tracks. Ellis builds up a pensive cinematic tension as Cave draws upon the now historic imagery of 2020’s Black Lives Matter protests: “A protester kneels on the neck of a statue / The statue says, ‘I can’t breathe’ / The protester says now you know how it feels / And kicks it into the sea”. The mood grows fittingly noxious before hope returns with the promise that “a time is nigh for the kingdom in the sky” and the song blooms into some of the more opulent celebratory sounds last heard on The Bad Seeds’ 2004’s sprawling, goth-blues opus ‘Abattoir Blues / The Lyre of Orpheus’. That motif of “a kingdom in the sky” returns on the heavenly ‘Lavender Fields’. Atop a score that wouldn’t sound out of place on The Gladiator soundtrack, Cave resolutely waltzes into a better place.
Fans of Cave’s purest, classic love songs (i.e. ‘Into My Arms’, ‘The Ship Song’) can now file them next to the ghostly but gorgeous ‘Shattered Ground’ and swooning ‘Albuquerque’ – the latter an ode to lockdown togetherness: “We won’t get to anywhere anytime this year, darling…unless you take me there”. There’s so much of Cave at his best here, not least his wry humour on closer ‘Balcony Man’ (“I’m Fred Astaire, you think you have a plan until I hit the stairs”) before ending things with a little bliss: “This much I know to be true, This morning is amazing and so are you”.
‘Carnage’ is arguably Cave and Ellis’ best record since The Bad Seeds’ latter day reinvention on 2013’s ‘Push The Sky Away’, or maybe even ‘Abattoir Blues’. It’s certainly two master craftsmen at the peak of their melodramatic powers.
Cave told fans via The Red Hand Files that these songs were born from missing the sensation of “the complete surrender to the moment” that comes from being on stage. They’ve certainly captured that abandon, along with all the heightened rushes of panic and mania that come with lockdown and recent world events, and those merciful moments of peace, serenity and hope for what’s to come. Cave and Ellis have taken a bold leap into the COVID era’s dark night of the soul, and found a truth that we all share.
Release date: February 25
Record label: Goliath Records