First Impressions of Ghosteen by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
It was just a few weeks ago that Nick Cave delivered the big news – they had a new album coming in a week! Ghosteen is a surprise release, for sure. I “attended” the premiere through Youtube on the 3rd of October.
Here are some of my initial thoughts while listening to the record, which I very much enjoyed. It’s a natural next step for Cave and company, and what a joy it is to hear new music from them. Ghosteen is a beautiful creation, that much I am sure of.
Nick mentions “The King,” as he has many times before. Elvis Presley is a recurring figure in Nick Cave's work, referenced as early as in The Firstborn is Dead. The electronic sounds are reminiscent of "Jesus Alone" from Skeleton Tree. The spoken words remind me of Push the Sky Away, but it continues the feeling from Skeleton Tree with its vocals floating atop the music. It’s transforming, equally haunting and beautiful. “And I love you,” Nick softly pleads. His voice goes to the higher registers as he sings “peace will come in time / A time will come for us.” A choir joins him. It’s stirring stuff. Like Nick reaching out to the man he was after the death of his son and telling himself that things will be alright, after all.
Us fans have gotten closer to Nick. Not only has he found new meaning in performing, but he now answers questions from fans in his newsletter and has given intimate solo shows as a part of his In Conversation tour. Like with The Boatman’s Call, it’s a personal album, but here it’s steeped in the majestic, the magical, the sorrowful, and the hopeful.
The transition from “Spinning Song” is seamless. The backing singer(s) are beautiful and reminds me of The National’s last outing, I Am Easy to Find. Naturalistic imagery. I’m thinking of "God is in the House.” As with the rest of this album, it feels like a wonderful continuation of Push the Sky Away and Skeleton Tree, but it’s less fragmented than the latter. Tender. Spiritual. Fantastical. Then, he deconstructs the images he’s painted. "People Ain’t No Good” comes to mind. "The world is plain to see / but it don’t mean we can believe.” It’s about hoping to experience the majesty of life, despite it all.
The arrival of a lover from a train makes me think of “The Train Song” (a released rarity) and Tom Waits’ “Train Song.”
Waiting For You
The song starts off with a crashing beat, but then piano and a wistful synth take over. Nick narrates about what might be a man and a woman, driving wordlessly. Again, hints of The Boatman’s Call. Nick pleads the title, heartfelt. “Waiting for you / to return.” It’s achingly beautiful.
Synthetic pulses. Jesus is set against urban imagery. There’s a street, a hotel, a couple. A choir joins in. Is it a memory? It’s so tangible. There are hints of Vangelis’ Blade Runner score with the synth and the slow, etheric beat.
Jangling echos. Is that a theremin? The sounds are slightly unsettling but peaceful, too. It’s a bit like Brian Eno and David Bowie. I’m thinking of “Moss Garden” from Heroes. A piano enters and then Nick comes in. He sings about burning horses and flaming trees (reminding me of “Higgs Boson Blues,” one of my favorite Bad Seeds songs).
“As the past pulls away and the future begins, I say goodbye to all that as the future rolls in…" It’s about a man who now has a distance to the trauma. There’s Jesus again. There’s black butterflies and horses aflame, but in the midst of it all is beauty; green eyes. Beautiful outro. Is it Nick singing?
A voice played backward starts the song. It’s a thing I’ve often found disquieting, probably because it reminds me of Twin Peaks. “Lonely rider cross the sky.” A reference to "“Riders in the Sky?” There’s a mythical quality to the lyrics. A choir joins in to heighten the etherial tone. A rising city. Soaring electrics and voices. It’s almost extraterrestrial. The voices might be lost souls. They’re not on the river Styx, but instead they’re roaming the skies.
“I am beside you / look for me.” Is Nick taking to Arthur? He tries to forget to remember that nothing is nothing, where something’s meant to be. The choir's wails, sounding like spirits, remind me of “Girl in Amber” from Skeleton Tree. But here it’s uplifting, knowing that the memory of a person is within and beside you. “I think they’re singing to be free,” he sings, and the voices rise. Spirits guided by song.
Electronic murmurs, a soft throbbing. Like clucking water. We return to the couple in the car by the sea from “Night Raid.” Affirmations of love. “I love my baby and my baby loves me,” Nick sings, like a chant. It’s an affirmation, and he seems sure of it. It’s a fact that he takes comfort in.
The song starts as an instrumental, taking cues from Nick and Warren’s film scores. Then, Nick is serious in saying that the world is beautiful. A chorus that rises with a hopeful piano going round and round. Choir. Is that a harpsichord? Drums enter for what seems like the first time on the album. It’s joyful, then it fades. “Here we go.” Electrics. Again the Bowie-feel from Low or Heroes.
The song takes on a different shape. It’s just his voice and the slow synth now. The voices rise. A man leaving a woman or child at home. I’m thinking of “By the Time I get to Phoenix.” He riffs beautifully on the bears in Goldilocks. But it’s also unsettling. The song turns more somber. “How the lights of love go down.” He sings about how both love and the past won’t let go. “There’s nothing wrong with loving something you can’t hold in your hand.” Totally heartbreaking. The sense of loss is almost overwhelming.
The lyrics to this song were released by Nick before in his newsletter to fans (source). Nice to hear it set to music. He returns again to the line “Jesus in his mother’s arms” and visions of a forest.
A monotone bass rumbles and echoes amidst a sparse piano and a sweeping synth. Los Angeles. Fires raging. The pacific coast. Malibu. A relationship coming to an end? A man disappearing, wanting a wild life. Chasing a cougar in the hills, that at night lies “trembling in my arms.” Someone waiting for peace to come. Is it in vain? A choir enters. Now, drums. Nick elaborates on his lyrics. Stretching it out, animating it. People running from their hurt.
The song transforms and takes on an apocalyptic tone.
Nick starts to sing in a new voice, almost shrill. He tells the Buddhist story of Kisa Gotami and her dead child. “Everybody’s losing someone.” Again, loss. It’s dark, but his voice anchors it with a melody. “It’s a long way to find / peace of mind.” It’s a line that could encapsulate the whole album and Nick’s journey through the valley of loss. The song ends on that note. It’s the most mournful song on the album, but there’s a light in the darkness. “And I’m just waiting now for my time to come / And I’m just waiting now for peace to come.”
Ghosteen is a meditative, affective album to listen to while lying down with the lights out. Compared to Skeleton Tree, it feels like the band has more control of these songs than the sometimes disjointed compositions in Skeleton Tree.
This is an album concerned with ghosts, spirits, and old haunts, without being haunting. It’s a religious album in many regards. Not only is it evident by looking at the album cover depicting what seems like the Garden of Eden. It’s also reinforced by Cave’s imagery, capturing something divine or at least a higher power.
It’s a hopeful record. Though much alike Skeleton Tree, it’s the polar opposite of that record’s often bleak outlook. Then, Nick was lost in permeating darkness that transformed his songwriting, and now he has emerged on the other side. Not as a new man, but a man who has conquered the darkness and found beauty in not only life but in the afterlife, where the spirits of our loved ones watch over us and the memories of them are as real as the people beside us. Nick has given himself up to the beauty, the majesty, the mystery, the hurt and the loss, and realized that it’s all part of the package.