Monday, October 7, 2019

album review: 'ghosteen' by nick cave & the bad seeds

I had a surprising amount of trepidation approaching this album.

And I feel it's important to admit that before going in because if you know my history surrounding Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, you might find that surprising. This is an act I can convincingly argue has made some of the best albums of the past forty years spanning a half dozen different genres, fiercely literate but not at the expense of striking melodies and dynamic performances. I still hold they have at least two bonafide 10/10 classic albums, the first being 1990's The Good Son, the latter you all should know as 2016's Skeleton Tree, which very nearly was my top album of that year if it wasn't for Dave Cobb's country compilation masterpiece Southern Family. But for a project that wracked with grief, both in the passing of his son and an exploration of the failure of narrative and art to encapsulate it... how in the Nine Hells do you follow it?

Well, this takes us to Ghosteen, the new double album that was promising to lean even further into the fractured electronic and ambient textures that have coloured his work in the 2010s, and could very well be even more touched by grief - many people forget that much of his work on Skeleton Tree was written before his son's tragic passing in 2015. And thus I was preparing for the sort of overwhelming emotional experience that was listening to Skeleton Tree, an album I can rarely listen to in public... but I also knew the odds of replicating such an experience was impossibly steep, so I was preparing for a project just a little less than what we got in 2016, especially across a double album that many were saying was even more spare and abstract in its poetry. So okay, what did Ghosteen bring?

Let me be very blunt with this: in framing Ghosteen as the conclusion of a trilogy along with Push The Sky Away and Skeleton Tree, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds have created a project that probably stands as both their most ethereal and fey project to date, as well as possibly their most accessible in the trilogy when it comes to content and sound... and thus when I say while it is pretty damn great and deserving of critical acclaim it is the weakest of that trilogy does not mean I want to disparage it. Part of this is an unfortunate and inevitable comparison to albums that I would hold among the best of their respective year if not the best, which means Ghosteen faces impossible expectations, the familiarity with this style of writing and recurring metaphors that means some of the wonderment is a bit dampened, and some questionable structural choices we'll discuss. But again, this is a genuinely special album that might just be among the best of 2019, but I'm not about to line up and throw another perfect score this project's way.

But first, let me highlight this album's unmistakably best qualities, namely Nick Cave's delivery. Now again, this is coming from someone who has come to really like his deliberate, half-spoken, aching delivery that can still command significant gravitas while amidst a mix that has picked up so much more eerie melodic swell, but there is a difference between the implacable but fracturing presence he held on Push The Sky Away and the utterly broken man from Skeleton Tree. The pain is still very much still there as it touches his haggard voice, but with the incredibly close vocal pickup and giving him ample space off of Warren Ellis' higher backing touches, he can hold as the focal point and unearthly storyteller of the increasingly abstract stories flitting around him. Now I won't deny that his occasional usage of falsetto is kind of questionable - the final verses across 'Hollywood' just doesn't have the same gravitas because of this, along with the choice to end the album on increasingly bleak notes, we'll come back to this - but on the flipside, when he embraces full-throated singing like on 'Waiting For You', it's damn near some of his most powerfully textured vocals of this era he's ever had! And for mixes that are often just spare, keyboard progressions that are achingly slow, the occasional patch of swelling strings, and the most brittle foundations in percussion or bass he's ever had if he even gets them at all, you need that vocal line to be gripping and it absolutely is, especially when on cuts like 'Spinning Song' and 'Sun Forest' he gets an unexpected backing chorus or how feminine vocals slide behind his on 'Night Raid' and it can sound breathtaking.

But that leads into trying contextualize the sound Nick Cave is embracing on this album... and let me start by saying that while it doesn't have the impressive, quaking climaxes of Push The Sky Away or a melodic choice as impossibly devastating as the violin that cuts through on 'Distant Sky' from Skeleton Tree, Ghosteen probably benefits from being the most tuneful of Nick Cave's albums this decade... often because the mixes are so spare and restrained and the beats are so minimal that they kind of have to be. Hell, there's a fuzzed out, clanking introduction to 'Waiting For You' that barely lasts a few seconds before the song shifts into an outright piano ballad, and while there's consistently patches of lo-fi static and crackling distortion all around this album, it's more to enhance the atmosphere that this album is flitting between physical and spiritual worlds, tapping into the ethereal plane where ghosts lie. Take that very faint muffled stutter of ascending guitar that colours the gentle warmth of the strings around of 'Sun Forest', or how the reversed vocal signal builds such brittle but striking foundation around 'Galleon Ship', or the unmistakably fey flutters around the synth burbles on 'Ghosteen Speaks', or the ominous hand percussion touches around a mix quaking with the faintest of electronic layers, spare whistles, and a mix slowly drawing its melodic swell off the piano chords on 'Leviathan'. Nothing here has precisely a groove, but given how this album is playing more towards ambient music, that's kind of the point: it's more about sinking into the textures and a rich cushion of atmosphere rather than an explicit hook, relying on negative space to really sink into its spare, otherworldly sound. And yet this is where we have to talk about structure because I do question how well it really connects, especially in comparison with the more robust arcs that played through the last two albums. As I said, this is a double album of material, but it's structured more based on content than musical flow, with the first disc being eight songs and described as 'from the children', whereas the second is two very long songs split by a spoken word interlude, described as 'from the parents'. We'll get more into the content ramifications in a bit, but simply on a musical level the sequencing feels a little awkward in terms of building to emotional climaxes - 'Leviathan' might lyrically fit as the end of its part, but sonically it feels a bit incomplete, and 'Hollywood' on the second disc is all the more jarring, with its consistent minor key brittleness as a weirdly bleak and offkilter way to finish off a more wondrous, ethereal experience. And given how damn important sequencing becomes in ambient music of any stripe, it is a very real flaw even if I love so many of those glassy synths and weird, offbeat touches.

And this takes us to the content... where again, in contrast to the last two albums this might be one of Nick Cave's most straightforward projects in some time... although again, part of it is because we have returning metaphors and common points of reference. The burning trees and creatures rising from the ocean are just as apocalyptic as they were on Push The Sky Away, with the children ascending towards the sun rooted in similar iconography of passing between worlds that was set up on Skeleton Tree. And that means, to the surprise of nobody, the majority of the text on this album is rooted in healing the grief and heartbreak that came with Nick Cave losing his son, recontextualizing Skeleton Tree's scattered reassembly at its end to beginning that path, not a resolution - and not just healing that, either. Keep in mind that a consistent arc across the past two albums was subtext about the music itself, from the apocalyptic questions of advancing the artistic story into untold depths on Push The Sky Away to how the whole concept of narratives was sundered for Cave on Skeleton Tree, which is one major reason why 'Spinning Song' references Elvis' passing and how through his words resonating across the decades some peace was found, bookending statements with the inevitability of death but also through art's transmission beyond it that some sort of emotional clarity can be found for both artist and audience. And thus certain vivid imagery, while contributing to the otherworldly nature of the writing also snaps into a clearer focus: the tidal waves of time's passage and a past that never seems to let you forget; the flaming horses of upheaval surging across time, leaving so many stunned in their wake even as none can stop their passage. And while the 'ghosteen' himself might be the most obvious symbol of how Cave has to find a way to reconcile with his son's passage into another plane of existence he can't contextualize, even as a song like 'Galleon Ship' shows him wanting to pay the ferryman and ride an airship towards that sun... he can only fly around it, never quite approach, which leaves him stranded on the other side. 

And that exposes a side of this album that's been less referenced but I'd argue is equally important and feeds into the subtext: repairing things on earth, with the text highlighting the real strain and lingering pain between Cave and his wife, and the subtext showing how the art must mend the gap to his audience, rebuild the faith in his stories and an emotive connection he treasures. 'Night Raid' retells the story of his sons' conception swaddled in imagery of birth and death, with the horses returning on the street to show the gravitas of that moment, and so much of the most simplistic of language is simply lovestruck in its connection amidst the most painful of tragedies - sometimes when facing a leviathan, that's all you can do. And while the title track highlights time's progression and a necessity to keep moving forward - setting the three bears fairy tale as an obvious symbol but also highlighting how she defaults to routine in order to maintain some lingering connection - what really struck me in the impossibility of trying to hold that cosmic connection was the interlude 'Fireflies', where photons from a dying star must inch across space to land their energy, and by the time they do they're just memories. And that leaves us with 'Hollywood' at home, where life seems cheapened amidst a dark and apocalyptic world, where he just waits to cross that distance himself... but then he references the Buddhist tale of Kisa, a woman whose son dies and she searches for any sort of answer from the Buddha... who tells her to collect a mustard seed from every house who had lost someone, and she could not collect a single one. And it highlights a union of both text and subtext: until that great barrier is passed, what is on earth is all we have, be it the scattered and flawed community or the audience who'll take that conveyance of energy and momentum in art and reflect it back, not send it skyward like the feather on the opening song. 

In short... really, my only issues with this project are structural foibles, and even I can't deny that they fit within the construct of the story - the bleakness of the album's end tempers the sentimentality realistically, even if I'm not really fond of the approach. And yet in the end, Ghosteen is genuinely gorgeous, a nuanced and striking project where despite stark minimalism in its composition there's a command of atmosphere and intricacy that I can't help but find incredibly moving. And while it might be the weakest of Nick Cave's trilogy in experimental rock this decade, it is still worth a very light 9/10 and absolutely a recommendation. It's an album of cosmic hauntings, and while complete peace might be waiting further down the road, enough has been found to make something beautiful.

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