By Luke Power
In 2015, Nick Cave’s son, Arthur, fell from a cliff somewhere near Brighton and died from his injuries. He was fifteen. This is the backdrop for Cave’s latest masterpiece – the stage upon which he explores his grief, reality itself, and his soul. He tells us, with a little help from the Bad Seeds and Warren Ellis, that there is not only life after death, but art after death.
Ghosteen completes the trilogy that began with 2013’s Push the Sky Away, which was followed by Skeleton Tree. The band have always been known for their bizarre fusion of genres: punk, blues, rock, and piano-driven ballads often came together with a cohesiveness that not many artists could hope of pulling off. But in these latest projects, Warren Ellis dominates, laying down synthesised tracks like a surgeon. Meanwhile, the Bad Seeds (Nick’s longtime group) don’t get pushed to the side so much as they simply give in totally and completely to Cave’s stunning, tragic vision.
Ghosteen is, simply put, an artistic triumph. It is very much the natural progression of the trilogy, both sonically and thematically. He both addresses and discusses his son throughout, the titular spirit represented by Christ and horses with “manes full of fire”. Musically, it is subtle, with many of the melodic ideas taking place in the background, with backing singers introducing lines that Cave will later murmur. The 62–year-old’s voice has aged, but in a mature, full way. His forays into falsetto on the first and last tracks are fascinating. There are even shades of Bowie’s Low era here, especially in the opening to ‘Sun Forest’.
The imagery is filled end to end with religion: priests and prophets are the characters Cave chooses to tell his tales with, surrounded by chapels and crucifixions. The sun is a malevolent creature which devours children. Bells toll in ‘Night Raid’, the sole song set while Arthur still lives. In the wonderful piano led ‘Waiting for You’, Nick relates to a “Jesus freak on the street”, telling us that “sometimes, a little bit of faith can go a long, long way”. The imagery is poignant, powerful, and the album, as a whole, feels like a dialogue with both God and his son (Cave’s as well as God’s). He doesn’t claim a higher knowledge here, but that’s not really the point; according to ‘Bright Horses’, reality is all around us, plain to see, but “it don’t mean we can’t believe in something”.
The experience of listening to the album in its entirety can be an unsettling affair. The trademark character-driven narratives are absent here, replaced by poetic fragments relating to images and landscapes. In the gorgeous ‘Ghosteen Speaks’, the listener is an intruder on a very personal prayer. The same goes for the opener in the second half, ‘Ghosteen’, where Cave croons over atmospheric strings that it’s okay to love and feel pain for those lost to us. “Mama bear holds the remote / Papa bear, he just floats / And baby bear, he has gone / To the moon in a boat, on a boat.”
The album is split in two parts: 8 songs on the first half, 3 on the second half. The latter half contains two ~ 15-minute songs, with a spoken word piece dividing them. But this space was essential in delivering full catharsis, with the harrowing and hoarse finale ‘Hollywood’ bringing us on a quietly fury-filled trip toward Malibu, a world of cougars and guns that culminates in the retelling of a Buddhist parable. Bass throbs in the background, military drums travel with us, and piano skips across the surface of the sound. Finally, Cave tells us of Kisa, a woman who is struck mad with grief when her baby passes away. She goes to Buddha, who tells her to collect a mustard seed from every house where no-one’s died. But the task proves impossible; tragedy has touched every family, and Kisa both realises and accepts that her sorrow does not stand alone. “She said everybody is always losing somebody / Then walked into the forest and buried her child”.
This is not a quick fix. It’s the kind of album one listens to again and again, over weeks and months, unravelling it and taking it apart in one’s head. The more time the listener gives to it, the more it gives in return. This is the heavy metal of grief. But the question hovers: has Cave found peace by the close? “I am here,” he says to his son, the Ghosteen, in Fireflies, “And you are where you are.”