Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds / Nick Cave

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Ghosteen Review

by Mark Deming

Plenty of artists have built careers out of writing about death, but only a tiny handful have shown the capacity to honestly and eloquently write about grief. Nick Cave knows more than a bit about grief, and he's been willing to stare into that particular abyss, doing so with a particularly keen focus on 2013's Push the Sky Away and 2016's Skeleton Tree, the latter partially informed by the death of his teenage son in 2015. Grief is hardly the only emotion that Cave and his ensemble the Bad Seeds explores on 2019's Ghosteen, but a sense of loss and a heavy heart permeates these songs like a thick fog, as well as the bonds of family and how they can bring us together and keep us apart. Ghosteen is a double album, and in a video that accompanied the album's online debut, Cave explained that, "The songs on the first album are the children, the songs on the second album are their parents," and though Cave's impressionistic lyrics rarely clarify their relationships or the roots of their troubles, these stories are not happy ones, though a powerful and abiding love is clearly visible just underneath the sorrow. Cave's vocals often seem more like recitations than singing (and that's literally what they are on the spoken word piece "Fireflies"), though the nuanced passion of his delivery is mesmerizing and ranks with the most affecting performances of his life. The strong murmur of the vocals is a match for the music, mostly composed of ghostly soundscapes built from sustained keyboards, piano, massed vocals, and very occasional rhythmic interjections. Ghosteen sounds like the musings of a handful of lost souls, each trapped in their own barren prairie with memories that soothe and ache at once, and its power is overwhelming while the volume is low-key. Anyone hoping that Cave and the Bad Seeds would make an album that recalls the eloquent clatter of their early work, let alone the noisy report of the Birthday Party or Grinderman, should take a hard pass on Ghosteen; this music values atmosphere over all else, and this essentially has nothing to do with rock & roll. Then again, Cave hasn't played much honest-to-goodness rock & roll in the decade prior to this release, and in its place he's created something that's rich and emotionally potent, and he's truly mastered his own creation. In the song "Bright Horses," Cave sings, "This world is plain to see/It don’t mean we can’t believe/In something," and the key to the album is in these words as Cave's protagonists search for a peace that will bring them out of the pain that has scarred them. If they never find those answers on Ghosteen, their search is the basis of a brave and extraordinary work from a visionary songwriter.

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