Ghosteen by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds is by far the most emotionally layered album to be released in a very long time. It is delicate and brutal all at once, and one of the best records of this year.
The master smith of lyrical prose returns with his merry band in tow. I am talking, of course, about Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, but you already knew that because of the article’s title. Today, we are going to be talking (mostly) about their newest release, Ghosteen. Ghosteen is the first record which was written in its entirety since the passing of Mr. Cave’s son, Arthur. With that preface in mind, grab a box of tissues, a teddy bear, and maybe a weighted blanket, because this review is going down some emotional paths.
I myself have a strange history with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. I discovered them when Sikth covered their song “Tupelo”, and absolutely loved it. This made me track down the original to listen to, which led me to promptly turn it off in disagreement. Years would go by and his name would pop up on occasion, but I had already decided I wasn’t a fan. Eventually, I became rather infatuated with Tom Waits and, of course, Mr. Cave’s name would come up in my searches again until I broke down and gave him another go. This time, though, I thoroughly enjoyed what I had heard. I started with the first two albums From Her To Eternity and The Firstborn is Dead – the latter of which includes “Tupelo”. Finally I was able to fully enjoy this style of music, but as I tend to do with bands who have been putting out records for so long, I have been pacing my listens as to not ruin the experience of rediscovering them when I need to.
My personal history out of the way, let’s get into their latest offering, Ghosteen.
Ghosteen is the third release in the more orchestration-leaning trilogy of albums Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds have been putting out, Push the Sky Away and Skeleton Tree being the other two. Warren Ellis is the band’s lead violinist and central figure behind these orchestral stylings; Ellis also provides much of the backing vocals throughout this record. This album is a crushingly overwhelming soundscape of living and overcoming trauma. There is a delicacy to the songs and a sadness-turned-acceptance ruminating from Cave. The instrumentation is so intricately crafted to produce the exact right tone needed to convey the exact right emotion.
Ghosteen is technically a double album, the first disc being songs one through eight, ending at “Leviathan”, and the second side containing the final three tracks. “Ghosteen”, “Fireflies”, and “Hollywood”: these are the songs which make up the album’s second part. “Ghosteen” and “Hollywood” are by far the longest tracks here, clocking in at just over 12 minutes and 14 minutes respectively, and they take up the majority of the second disc. “Fireflies” is a stripped-down song that mainly consists of a spoken word reading of Cave’s poetry, backed by a quiet, subtle piano and violin.
“The Spinning Song” opens up this experience with some very delicate synths – right off the bat, the tone is set. Cave quietly steps in with soft, mournful lyrical prose which could only come from someone with a broken heart. Nearing the end of the track, he flips to his head voice saying ‘Peace will come in time‘ in what’s almost a plea to whoever is listening. “Bright Horses” brings some of my favourite lyrics from the album: ‘And we are all just sick and tired of seeing things how they are/Horses are just horses and their manes aren’t full of fire.‘ The spiritual levels this speaks on shows us how sometimes, we just need to see and love something which isn’t actually there, like seeing a passed loved one in the form of a ghost. “Bright Horses” eventually devolves into denial as Cave sings ‘But my baby’s coming home now/On the 5:30 train‘. There’s something so painful in the seemingly normal words but put into the context of speaking about a deceased person.
There is a myriad of images to be discovered throughout each song, which is what Mr. Cave is known for. The words he delicately plucks from paper to sorrowfully voice all talks of loss, grief, and – eventually – a sort of healing. Knowing there are others out there floating in the darkness of their own sadness and hardships has given Cave a sense of community. The feeling of being alone and forever crushed by his grief was suddenly lifted away by all of us who struggle with our own forms of negative emotions, whatever those may be.
“Sun Forest” is definitely a favourite track of mine. It begins rather quietly with some synth and other assorted effects, until a deep piano gently rings in. Cave steps in with a spoken word verse, opening up this song with some of his most vivid and somewhat confusing imagery. This track touches on how the reality of needing to move on takes place: ‘…the future rolls in, like a wave, like a wave‘. There’s really too much going on within this track to completely pull it apart, and I think it’s best left to experience on its own. Nick Cave has put all of his lyrics online, and reading them as you listen creates a whole new experience apart from simply, well, listening.
With the realization that this review is getting pretty long already, I want to briefly talk about the song “Galleon Ship”. Carrying on from and moving past “Sun Forest”, which began the healing process, “Galleon Ship” is about Cave not being alone with his grief. Suddenly, ‘…we are not alone it seems/So many riders in the sky/The winds of longing in their sails/Searching for the other side‘. Cave has been able to take some comfort in knowing that the pain he and his wife are feeling is a universal human feeling – we all feel grief and misery, but are still capable of healing. All of these are my interpretations only, and may or may not be what the songs are actually about, so I encourage you to take part and try to come with your own version of Ghosteen.
Ghosteen sees Nick Cave being the most emotionally raw he’s ever been, at least to my ears. Listening to the album has fully enveloped me, and took up most of the day I first heard the album. It had me brought to tears in its execution but also held my hand, saying ‘it’s okay, you’re not alone, we’re all here with you.’ This all shaped up to be a bit of catharsis after the soul-crushing sadness that overshadowed my first listen. Ghosteen, like people and emotions, has many levels to it; at first glance I heard the sadness and loss, but the more I listened, the more I could feel those layers peel away to reveal the quieter bed of healing.
I wholeheartedly recommend Ghosteen – I give that recommendation with a warning, however. As I mentioned, this record is filled with intense emotions, dealing with the struggles surrounding the loss of a child, something a parent should never experience. As such, it should not be taken too lightly. Ghosteen has the ability to cut straight to your emotional core, so without that caveat, give it a go, because it will change your life if you let it.