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New Music: Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds

By Troy Hasselman, October 12 2019 —

In the trailer for the 2016 documentary film One More Time with Feeling, Nick Cave says “Most of us don’t want to change, really. I mean, why should we? What we do want is modifications on the original model. We keep on being ourselves, but just hopefully better versions of ourselves. But what happens when an event occurs that is so catastrophic that you just change? You change from the known person to an unknown person.”

For Cave, that catastrophic event came on the night of July 14, 2015 when his 15-year-old son Arthur Cave tragically fell to his death off a cliff near their family’s home in Brighton, England. This event has definitively changed Cave into what he considers a more empathetic, caring version of his past self, saying the death of his son gave him “a deep feeling toward other people and an absolute understanding of their suffering.” This newfound empathy has manifested itself in his Red Hand Files website where he answers solicited questions from fans around the world, ruminating on topics including grief, faith, love or his favourite music. This website has been accompanied by a live iteration with his Q&A tours where he performs songs on a piano while answering questions from the audience with no moderator. The tour and website have given the historically cagey and guarded Cave a new openness which is reflected in his new album with his longtime backing band The Bad Seeds, Ghosteen, the first new music Cave has written since the death of his son.

These songs show Cave in continued evolution, with the album amounting to the most ethereal and delicate work of Cave’s career. This further refines the musical direction the band began on 2013’s Push the Sky Away and continued with 2016’s Skeleton Tree. These albums have brought Cave into a more stripped-back direction that has eschewed rhythm and propulsion for ambience and airiness. The predominantly guitar and drum-driven band shifted its focus to synthesizers and string instruments as its sonic focal point, with this material retaining the visceral punch that makes his earlier, more aggressive work so vital.

Cave’s lyrics have marked a departure on this album as well, gone is the narrative-driven songwriting which has informed so much of Cave’s past work filled with southern gothic-style tales of revenge, redemption and violence. His lyrics delve into impressionism on this album, consisting of phrases that serve to illustrate the broad themes of grief and loss encircling the album rather than using storytelling as a means of colouring the material. This new direction can be jarring after Cave has spent four decades establishing himself as one of music’s great storytellers, but in the context of this album it makes perfect sense and compliments the material beautifully.

Ghosteen is a double album with a running length of over an hour consisting of two sides. In his announcement for the album, Cave dubbed the first half of the album to be “the children” with the second half of the album being “the parents.” The first half of the album consists of eight average-length songs that have a child-like, almost pastoral quality to them as Cave conjures references such as fairy tales and natural imagery to evoke his grief at the death of his son. Tracks like “Spinning Song” and “Galleon Ship” rank as some of the most undamagedly beautiful work of his career. The second half of the album consists of three tracks, with two being over ten minutes in length broken up by a shorter, spoken word middle track. These tracks bring Cave’s mourning onto an epic-scale as strings, a choir and the walls-of-sound created by Cave’s chief sonic architect Warren Ellis work together to create something truly transcendent.

Throughout Nick Cave’s career, there have been endless personas and modes that he has inhabited. From the psychotic, Old Testament obsessed belter of The Birthday Party, to the strung-out redeemer of his early Bad Seeds work, to the lovestruck balladeer of The Boatman’s Call and sleazed-out hellraiser of Grinderman amongst countless other iterations of Cave that have evolved and shifted at a quickfire rate while always remaining singularly him. Cave turned 62 recently and remains as vital, ever-evolving and fascinating here as he has at any point in his career.

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