December AOTM: Ghosteen – Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

Image result for ghosteen

I genuinely don’t really know where to start with this one. First, I guess I should start with an apology. I know what it feels like to have an AOTM chosen that you know will be an effort for you. David, I am sorry. However, I have not chosen this because I am a huge Nick Cave fan. I have a passing knowledge of his music acquired some from of my previous (intense but failed) relationships. I have only ever bought one other Nick Cave album, Dig, Lazarus Dig from 2008. Bought on the strength of reviews, loved at the time but rarely played since.

What I do love about Nick Cave is his undeniably prolific creative output. I think this is his 17th studio album with Bad Seeds, add to that Grinderman and other side projects, soundtracks, screen plays, acting roles, exhibitions etc. This can be seen as self indulgent or it can be viewed more favourably as an endless stream of creativity. A stream that stopped a couple of years ago.

I don’t read too much music press if I am honest. I didn’t know about the loss of his teenage Son Arthur until the release of Ghosteen. I approached the album with some trepidation. I didn’t know what to expect and listened mostly without reading reviews in any detail. When you listen you are going to have to make a decision to give this a go or not. I hope you go with it. What you will find is a double album (double sorry David). The 2nd album contains two 12 minute songs (triple sorry David). As AOTM ‘asks’ go, this is a big one.

What first struck me is the ‘soundscape’. I never know if ‘soundscape’ is the right word. If it were a film it would be the ‘mise en scene’ so what ever the music equivalent of that is, that’s what I mean. Rich textured, chesty, vibrating analogue synths, strings, choral, gospel tinged backing vocals, piano’s and that voice. No matter what you think of Nick Cave, his voice is fucking incredible. It feels like his career to date, he’s been practicing to sing these lyrics and these songs. The first CD/side of the album is formed of 3-6 minute, beautiful and relatively conventional tracks. The 2nd and 3rd tracks, ‘Bright Horses’ and ‘Waiting for You’ are undeniably beautiful ballads. I think they will act as ‘anchor’ tracks that you will find yourself falling for on repeated listens. They are the most conventional and identifiable tracks and feature some achingly beautiful lyrics.

‘He’s the little white shape dancing at the end of the hall / the wish that time couldn’t dissolve’

And for me, this line, is a beautiful example of what I love about this album. ‘Arthur’ is never named. The word ‘death’ never appears. Neither does ‘grief’. Nor ‘loss’. There is close to no use of the past tense. The album revolves around the positivity and hope of the present and future tenses.

This album is not about loss. It is about permanence.

It is about the power of love and of memory. It makes me feel that there can be beauty found in the deepest tragedy which somehow makes me feel more connected with the things that I love the most.

Before Sammy was born we called him ‘Wolfgang’ it stuck so much we considered it for real. It feels like ‘Ghosteen’ is used in a similar manner by the Cave family on the other side of the life continuum. ‘There is nothing wrong with loving something that you can’t hold in your hand’

Back to the ‘ask’ – David, CD 2 will be a challenge for you. I’ll just call that now. I do urge you to give it a go though. I have these tracks play continuously CD1 and CD2 without interruption and feel this is the best experience. Nick Cave talks about the CD2’s tracks being the ‘parent’ tracks, they were written first and spawned the ‘children’, the tracks found on CD1. This only really makes sense when you become deeply familiar with the music. I hope this is somewhere that you get with this beautiful music.

‘I am beside you, look for me’

6 comments

  1. nolankane706

    I was looking forward to this album. Nick Cave has such a big following and this album had some great reviews and appeared in many end of the year lists. I have spent a fair bit of time with it. I have spread out the listens to see if I could find the right space to get into it. To date I’ve yet to find that place sadly.

    The thing is that the compositions and the lyrics are good. It’s a well put together album. Bright Horses is nice, and so are a few others. I think I just can’t into Nick Cave’s voice. It grinds on me. It’s like listening to a broken lounge singer. I’m mindful of this albums content so I don’t want to go on a tangent about a guy that has released a really exposed album…. but Nick Cave isn’t my bag. Lets leave it at that.

  2. David Allison

    Nick Cave has been – whether I’ve liked it or not – around for as long as I’ve been listening to music. John Peel to play his band The Birthday Party back in the 80s, who just sounded like awful goths to me. And I have a number of friends who are absolutely obsessed by him and have tried, on many occasions, to turn my indifference towards him into something more positive.

    I’m afraid Nolan has hit the nail on the head for me. It’s his voice. I don’t buy it. I never have. There’s something – for me anyway – quite forced about an Australian dude who lives in Brighton who sings like he’s staring down a Texan highway muttering something about Jesus and the cross. It just feels fake!

    His lyrics have also reminded me a lot of Bono over the years. The same kind of lazy religious imagery, the man in black evoking vague themes of Americana. I know that won’t get down well with you, Joey, but I’m afraid that’s where I’ve always been with him.

    So coming to this album with that baggage is obviously quite a challenge. And this album sure isn’t an easily listen – it’s very personal and slow and undoubtedly heartfelt. I didn’t hate it as much as I thought I would. For all my criticisms of him, Cave is obviously an incredibly talented songwriter – I mean, the dude wrote The Mercy Seat for Christ’s sake. Fair dos. So you can feel the songcraft and his ear for melody throughout the album. And once I’d got through a few songs, I found the affectation in his voice a lot less troublesome and I could start to engage with his emotions. But that’s probably as positive as I can get. I mean, I found it VERY hard to get through the whole thing, especially the two very very very long and interminable songs on the second side. I don’t know if I ever quite managed it through all 14 minutes of Hollywood, I’m going to be honest.

    Certainly with the first album’s worst of stuff, I would really love to hear it sung by someone else whose voice I enjoyed more. That might open the songs for me. Beyond that, I think I was always going to struggle with this, and alas, so it has proved.

    Having said all that, I did really enjoy the challenge. The whole point of this blog is to try out new things. So honestly, Joey, I appreciate the opportunity . And I have come away with a greater understanding of why his fans love him so much. It’s just me and Nick are never going to get on that well, but I can’t imagine he’ll lose much sleep over that…

  3. whyohwhyohwhy

    Evening. I’m late, again, of course. But I think this also needed time to actually get my head around, (not to mention my limited listening time).

    And it’s something that – despite the subject matter – I’ve enjoyed (if that’s the right word). Like brother David, I have friends who love Cave, and the Bad Seeds/Grinderman. And, like other older luminaries like Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen, he’s an artist who I respect in terms of the love others whose tastes I respect adore him. But I’ve just never really got into him, and that’s not because I have resisted, but I just haven’t ever landed on him in that way, and so it’s been in my orbit more than anything. I was lucky enough to see Grinderman live once (at Exit) and my god, his stage presence was something. I didn’t think he’d be affecting, but really there’s no fucks given at all. A thin man in a skinny suit, with slicked back hair, looking like he wouldn’t knock the skin off a rice pudding, then screaming and growling and then breaking into a rich baritone. I was simultaneously amazed, and also a bit scared. But that was 7 or 8 years ago and time then passed.

    So, here we are. And I looked forward to this as a bona fide ‘album we’d never usually choose’ moment, and we do need these. I knew of his story, and the tragedy, and it’s something I think I’ve struggled to engage with because of the subject matter (as I have with anything to do with kids). And I’m not entirely sure I have yet, perhaps because of that. However, I have listened to it, and musically, and lyrically, I think it’s a real work of art. Especially knowing what I do of Grinderman and the Seeds, this feels a pretty big departure, and perhaps that’s why I’ve enjoyed it. The melodies and vocals work really well together – I’ve never really been put off by his voice, but i can see why people could be – and it’s all pretty powerful, elegiacal music. I’ve found it quite calming and I’ve actually listened to it while working a bit, which doesn’t seem perhaps the intended purpose, but it’s stuck with me so far.

    I’m not sure where I’ll be with this album in 6 months, but I’m glad it’s in my collection.

  4. misterstory

    Interesting thoughts brothers. Thanks for giving it a go. I knew it was a long shot but also wanted to stay true to why we set up the blog in the 1st place? Also it featured in so many 2019 lists it’s always good to have an informed opinion.

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