In September, 2018 Nick Cave’s wife Susie Bick confirmed he was in LA working on songs for an upcoming Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds album. On her website The Vampire’s Wife, Bick referred to these songs as “his fever songs”, adding, “Some of his songs reveal themselves at night in his fever dreams.”
Fans were the first to hear more about this new Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds double album, Ghosteen, when Cave answered Joe from Bexhill-On-Sea’s question “When can we expect a new album?” via The Red Hand Files Issue #62: “Dear Joe, you can expect a new album next week…” Then, about ten minutes later, The Red Hand Files Issue #63 dropped into our inboxes, revealing the album’s heavenly artwork: “Oh, and Joe, this is the cover.”
Part 1 of Ghosteen comprises eight songs and Part 2 consists of two long songs, linked by a spoken word piece. But don’t panic! It has a total running time of 1 hr 8 mins.
Although I had already set my alarm for 6.45am in preparation for the worldwide, YouTube-hosted premiere stream of Ghosteen, which commenced today at 7am AEST, an alert popped up on my smartphone last night prompting me to do so had I not already – genius!
When the alarm went off this morning, I arose with an excited feeling knowing that fans from all over the world were about to simultaneously experience this stream. I turned on my portable bluetooth speaker and clicked on the YouTube link, but chose to stay in bed. Cave described Ghosteen as “a migrating spirit”, but other than that we had no idea what to expect.
The Ghosteen stream incorporates videos of shifting cloud formations and starlit skies with each song’s lyrics fading in and out. Synths beam us somewhere not of this earth as opener Spinning Song emerges, Cave’s upper register quivering during the closing lyrics: “Peace will come and peace will come and peace will come in time / Time will come and time will come and time will come for us” – a reassuring lament, perhaps? Does time heal all wounds?
Bright Horses features shimmering piano, operatic vocal flourishes, an ever-present synth undercurrent, delicate xylophone, strings and subtle percussive elements. “And I’m by your side and I’m holding your hand,” Cave sings. This song is deeply affecting in a similar way to Distant Sky (featuring Else Torp) from Cave’s previous Skeleton Tree set. “And everyone has a heart and it’s calling for something… This world is plain to see, it don’t mean we can’t believe in something…”
“Cave’s lyricism is poetic and evocative as always.”
What is that industrial sound that opens Waiting for You and then gradually vanishes? Probably another mysterious Warren Ellis creation. We may never find out. Cave tackles the song’s high chorus, which tests the pinnacle of his vocal range; wailing, crestfallen, broken yet hopeful.
There are several repeated motifs throughout Ghosteen that jump out immediately: lyrical references to craving peace and waiting.
Cave’s lyricism is poetic and evocative as always: “As a spiral of children climbs up to the sun, waving goodbye to you and goodbye to me…” (Sun Forest); “I am beside you, look for me… I try to forget to remember” (Ghosteen Speaks).
Eerie synth drone throughout Galleon Ship and calls to mind the Skeleton Tree track Jesus Alone.
The 12-plus-minute title track and first song of Part 2 – all shivering strings and solemn synth chords – materialises like a spell; a shift in the atmosphere, crossing over. “This world is beautiful,” Cave sings. The songs on this second ‘album’ are the parents while the songs on Part 1 are the children, according to Cave. “And Baby Bear he is gone, to the moon…” – is this a reference to Cave’s late son Arthur? After what happened in 2015 it’s impossible not to feel his eternal presence all over Cave’s output: “There’s nothing wrong with loving something you can’t hold in you hand.” Cave’s spoken word piece, Fireflies, could be addressing Arthur: “We are here and you are where you are.”
Then Cave finishes up in Hollywood: “I’m gonna buy me a house up in the hills, with a tear-shaped pool and a gun that kills.” There’s 14-plus minutes of pulsing bass, synth drone, distant tinkling piano and haunting narrative; dreams morph into reality and then back again – what’s real anymore? The closing image Cave leaves us with, of a mother burying her baby in the forrest, devastates: “Everybody’s losin’ someone.”
And then it all comes full circle, finishing where Cave began: “It’s a long way to find peace of mind… I’m just waiting now for peace to come.”
In Ghosteen, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds have created undulating, amorphous soundscapes. Subtle shifts in sonic terrain sound otherworldly; this music is capable of conjuring the spirit world. Hypnotic, meditative and cathartic, this 17th studio album is ideally digested while lying down with headphones on and eyes closed. Not for casual listeners.