‘No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.’ C. S. Lewis
The terrible wrench of grief grips us all at some point in our lives, and if you’re lucky enough to have evaded its cold clasp it’s only a matter of time. In the throes of deep, profound loss, we desperately cling onto the fantasies whereby the bereavement that befell us had been averted, the gnawing pain of conversations never had finally granted in imaginary scenarios with the deceased. Humanity can get lost in its desperate need to wander in a world they want it to be, and this wounded escapism is understood all too well on the cover of Ghosteen, a picturesque yet artificial fairy tale landscape of white horses and a surrounding natural harmony of kitschy proportions. We know it’s a gaudy depiction, but maybe that’s what we want.
Casually announced last week in a response to a fan question, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds 18th studio album Ghosteen (their second double album since 2004’s Abbatoir Blues / The Lyre of Orpheus) continues with the synth atmospheres first heard on 2013’s Push the Sky Away, but rids further of prominent melodies or rhythms to an even purer state of sonic reductionism. The first eight songs being ‘the children’ and the final, lengthier three songs ‘the parents’, the abstract minimalism that swirls throughout is a softer, more gentle listen than its arguably discordant predecessor Skeleton Tree, erroneously considered to be his ‘grief’ album despite the songs written before the death of his son Arthur.
For a record consisting of mainly keys and strings, the Bad Seeds perform an astonishing act of imbuing each track with a subtle distinct flavour, from the enchanted mourn of ‘Bright Houses’ to the ethereal gospel of ‘Leviathan’, every song creates a winding, twisting traverse of the full spectrum of manifest grief. Its quiet moments are often its most rich, the eerie production that begins ‘Galleon Ship’ masters affecting simplicity as well as any of Nigel Godrich’s work on Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool. Cave stretches himself vocally too, reaching aching high notes on album opener ‘Spinning Song’, a far cry from the baritone he established on early Bad Seeds output.
Lyrically Cave is as strong as ever, but his poetry shines as well as pangs on the final act. The title track ‘Ghosteen”s devastating fourth verse utilises the childlike picture of ‘mama, papa, and baby bear’, mirroring the fantasy of the album’s artwork, an essential part of storytelling bonding between parent and child. What could have been cloying in a lesser songwriter’s hands, is an acutely painful consolidation of the joy observed in a child’s playing, to its sudden stinging absence. The wisdom displayed throughout the record and the insight into the universal psychology of grief is distilled on the final musing of ‘Fireflies’: “we are here, and you are where you are”.
Few artists of Nick Cave’s generation are in his league, proving time and again the consummate artist he is. On the Bad Seeds’ 18th album, they have truly delivered an indispensable entry in their towering body of work, a deeply moving and stirring statement that turns deep pain into something honest, knowing, and beautiful.