Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – ‘Ghosteen’ review: a beautiful account of harrowing grief

Like C.S. Lewis’ 'A Grief Observed', this devastating album is the work of an artist attempting to make sense of loss. "Peace will come," Nick Cave assures us, although it never really does

The last few years have seen Nick Cave engage with fans more directly and openly than ever before. “You can ask me anything,” was the simple and direct message he posted to fans on the launch of his Red Hand Files website. Over the past 12 months, Cave answered questions from fans on everything from the banal to the grandiose. Last week, he used to site to casually announce that a new Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds record was on the way. It appeared online at 10pm last night and fans all over the world were invited to listen to the band’s 17th studio album, ‘Ghosteen’, together.

This newly open and collective approach to communication also dominated Cave’s shows over the last year; they effectively became the live version of the Red Hand Files. Part concert, part cathartic confessional, they saw Cave take unvetted questions and reply with often searing honesty – a far cry from the past when, as an interviewee, the typically enigmatic star gave little away. It seems this change in approach emerged via the most tragic circumstances imaginable: the sudden, accidental death of his 15-year-old son Arthur in 2015. Cave said the tragedy transformed him as an individual, making him see humanity anew. It gave him, he explained, “a deep feeling toward other people and an absolute understanding of that suffering.”

While many interpreted Cave’s last album, ‘Skeleton Tree’ as his exploration of the suffering he and those closest to him experienced following the tragedy, he later revealed that the majority of the songs were written prior to Arthur’s death. Yet the bleakness and cracks in Cave’s voice – there’s a comparison to be made to Johnny Cash’s ‘Hurt’ era – left little to the imagination as to just how much the loss had shaped its delivery, grief always feeling palpable. If ‘Skeleton Tree’ gave a glimpse into grief in its immediate aftermath, ‘Ghosteen’ is a grief considered. Like C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed, the album evokes the trying-to-make-sense stage of grief, even when there’s often no sense to be found. ‘Part 1’ of this record, Cave has said is “the children”; ‘Part 2’ is “the adults”. Ghosteen itself is “a migrating spirit”. This is one of the most outwardly beautiful albums in the Bad Seeds collection, and also one of the most singularly devastating.

From the offset, these songs have little in the way of rhythm or structure, as Cave seeks to mirror the disorientation that grief brings. It is a filmic and vivid fever dream. Thomas Wydler’s percussion is largely absent, replaced instead by Warren Ellis’ electronic dreamscapes, which bring much ambient lightness and air, as Cave imagines a Heaven-like place in which the afterlife exists – a place distant to a dying world where “everyone is hidden, everyone is cruel / There’s no shortage of tyrants, no shortage of fools.”

The afterlife he imagines, fashioned from a fantastical world of fairy tales, gods and mythical creatures, is painfully far away for Cave: “Everything is distant as the stars / And I am here and you are where you are,” his voice cracks. The immersive atmosphere the album creates frequently crushes: where grief was perhaps more distant on ‘Skeleton Tree’, here it’s painfully magnified. We’re not so much observing grief from afar as being invited to starkly experience it side-by-side with someone experiencing the most painful hours of their lives. It’s often an overwhelming experience.

Music on ‘Ghosteen’ is sparse and spectral: choirs wail and echoes of violins frequently haunt against singular piano keys. Cave’s voice darts between the fragile and the ferocious, between wild rage and abject helplessness. His mournful lines recall William Blake as much as Leonard Cohen or Scott Walker: “It isn’t any fun to be standing here alone with nowhere to be / With a man mad with grief and on each side a thief / and everybody hanging from a tree”. Likewise, when Cave sees his migrating spirit, his ‘Ghosteen’, his lines are thoroughly disarming: “And the little white shade dancing at the end of the hall / Just a wish that time can’t dissolve.”

In an open letter to a fan on Red Hand Files earlier this year, Cave spoke about the comfort he found in imagining an afterlife as a means to cope with grief. “Within that whirling gyre all manner of madnesses exist; ghosts and spirits and dream visitations, and everything else that we, in our anguish, will into existence,” he wrote, continuing: “These are precious gifts that are as valid and as real as we need them to be. They are the spirit guides that lead us out of the darkness.”

These “spirit guides” are everywhere on ‘Ghosteen’, an album on which imaginations and realities blur. They take the form of a fairy tale Elvis and Pricilla on ‘Spinning Song’; a mythical creature on album standout ‘Leviathan’; and a group of children who collectively create a spiral to Heaven on ‘Sun Forest.’ Part 2 of the album sees these spirit guides lead us out of the darkness with lengthier compositions, but not before the protagonist must thrash around through sleepless nights, nightmares and daydreams of escape. As he puts it: “I’m waiting for peace to come”. All of this happens against a backdrop of a harrowing apocalypse where horses scream, Jesus wails and bodies hang from trees. At times, the observations are so personal that to listen feels intrusive. “Peace will come,” Cave assures us, although it never really does.

‘Ghosteen’ is one of the most devastatingly accurate accounts of grief that you’ll ever listen to. Yet it’s also, astoundingly, one of the most comforting. Few mediations on grief manage to navigate despair and catharsis as well as this. Cave encourages us to candidly speak about grief, be it through wild imaginings, eerie hauntings or gentle longings. Only then, as he points out, can we find some sort of “peace of mind.” Whatever form grief takes, Cave encourages us to find beauty in pain, even when it might be difficult to do so. These are probably the most painful songs Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds have ever recorded, but they’re also the most beautiful: it is a work of extraordinary, unsettling scope.

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