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Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - Ghosteen (Album Review)

Wednesday, 16 October 2019 Written by Jacob Brookman

Photo: Matthew Thorne

To the uninitiated, getting into Nick Cave’s work is a daunting prospect. ‘Ghosteen’ is the Australian musician’s 17th album with the Bad Seeds, and one that continues a 40 year career that has produced a catalogue of dark, Southern gothic music, often meditating on mortality, despair, religion and libido.

There is also additional, troubling context. Cave’s 15-year-old son died in 2015 near Beachy Head, England, and the musician’s subsequent grief at the tragedy was covered in the documentary film One More Time with Feeling and 2016 album ‘Skeleton Tree’. ‘Ghosteen’ is representative of a latter stage in that grief—11 tracks of slow, mournful fury; emotions that are at war with each-other; brokenness that cannot be fixed.

There is some immense work here. The title track builds a world of sinister yet childlike images to demonstrate the sadness and loneliness of the central narrative—if that is the right word.

The ‘ghosteen’ itself is a kind of spirit: “A ghosteen dances in my hand / Slowly twirling, twirling all around / A glowing circle in my hand.” The images are abundant yet deeply, deeply personal. Effervescent, terrifying, apparently never-ending and solemn, this is dark.

Hollywood is another epic. Spreading out over 14 minutes, it is a slow trudge towards death in the oppressive beauty of California. Cave uses the place names ‘Malibu’, ‘Pacific Coast’ and ‘Hollywood’ itself to convey a deeply recognisable pastiche-scene for his emotional torture. The chorus is unrelenting: “And I'm just waiting now, for my time to come / And I'm just waiting now, for my place in the sun.”

It’s work that has been arranged to convey the despair and tragedy at the centre of the experience. It’s also a million miles from ever feeling cloying. One part in that achievement may be that Cave is a veteran of music that dwells on the fringes of emotional bravery. 

His catalogue doesn’t just deal with death, it is immersed in it and explores the concept to its outer limits. ‘Ghosteen’ is an album that openly and honestly admits there is no silver lining. No lessons learnt. Nothing. As mentioned, getting into Nick Cave’s work is no picnic.

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