“I think they’re singing to be free”
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds have released their sixteenth studio album Ghosteen, the final instalment in the trilogy of albums joining 2013’s Push the Sky Away and 2016’s Skeleton Tree, released after the tragic passing of his teenage son Arthur in 2016.
Ghosteen, roughly translating to ‘little ghost’, is a glorious two-part album, which Cave describes on his blog The Red Hand Files as the first part being ‘children’, and the second part being ‘their parents’. Each song in part I and II of Ghosteen are spectral scenes of stunning and lush imagery, like the biblical Paradise its album cover evokes. After the death of long-time bandmate Conway Savage in late 2018, it seemed as if Cave wished to open up the dialogue between the listener and the artist with The Red Hand Files, Cave’s online forum: “You can ask me anything. There will be no moderator. This will be between you and me. Let’s see what happens. Much love, Nick.” I was fortunate earlier this year to see Nick in the intimate setting of his In Conversation solo tour, where he stood on the stage, receptive, pacing across the stage to eagerly seek out questions from the audience, responding to each person with careful consideration and kindness.
While predecessor Skeleton Tree’s grief-stricken and despairing soundscapes felt like a dense sonic fog confined to the listener’s periphery (this feeling most present in tracks ‘Girl in Amber’ and “Skeleton Tree”), these musical textures on Ghosteen reverberate upwards and outwards in exploratory gestures, like a beacon lighting a path. The synths on opening track ‘Spinning Song’ wisp in and out, bending around the layered vocal harmonies as it swells in grandeur in the chorus. “Everyone has a heart/and it’s calling for something” Cave sings on album highlight “Bright Horses”, as Warren Ellis’ gorgeous string arrangements soar delicately amongst twinkling piano arpeggi as Cave’s vocal rises from its usual grounded depth to a transcendent falsetto range.
Cave’s lyrics on Ghosteen are paternalistic, reassuring, and warm, radiating a tender-hearted persona, especially on the lullaby-esque ‘Night Raid’ where the metallic bells sound like a watchful eye protecting a sleepy, rain drenched town, and ‘Fireflies’, where allusions to the Pieta, a biblical name of Jesus held in the arms of Mary, are made, referencing his wife Susie, who, in her grief, was the titular Girl in Amber, stuck and unchanging, in Skeleton Tree.
‘Sun Forest’, is a sonic paradise where it almost seems that the spirit of the album is ascending. This graviation towards the light of life and love, is conjured in gospel harmonies when ‘a spiral of children climbs up to the sun’. Hope emanates from each track in Ghosteen, but grief does not stop for the day-to-day reality of ‘Hollywood’, the closing track, as it chronicles the move the Cave family made to Los Angeles from Brighton after their son’s passing, through the Buddhist story of Kisa Gotami, who comes to terms with her son’s passing after trying to save him. “I’m just waiting now for my time to come”, Cave repeats in his familiar baritone, as its ominous, yet steady bassline indicates caution toward the mystery of the future and unknown.\
When listening to Ghosteen, I am reminded of a remark of admiration made by a fellow Bad Seeds fan at a Nick Cave event earlier in 2019. After Cave had finished playing a pared down rendition of ‘God is in the House’ in between fielding questions, “Mate, as far as I’m concerned, God is in the house tonight” began one of the crowd in an ocker drawl. Cave looked genuinely humbled by this comparison, and spoke of his openness to placing his faith in a higher being that brings him immeasurable strength and perspective in his creative and personal life.
Ghosteen is a triumphant release, sonically and lyrically. Each song is delicate and intricate with pastoral imagery and themes of family, love, and transformation, toward the goal of ascension. To have faith, is to understand the importance and universality of doubt in one’s journey to faith.
“I am beside you/look for me”, Ghosteen speaks, the ever present force of life.