Album review: Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds: Ghosteen

A new Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds album is always an event and, even at his most delicate and downbeat, Cave gave us an event, premiering the 17th Bad Seeds album live on YouTube with a big communal listening “party”.

Nick Cave PIC: Matthew Thorne
Nick Cave PIC: Matthew Thorne

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds: Ghosteen (Ghosteen Ltd) ***

Ghosteen is really the comedown after the crisis, the final part of a subdued trilogy and the follow-up to the much lauded Skeleton Tree, which was inevitably, if erroneously, linked to the death of his son Arthur in 2015, as its songs were all written before his bereavement.

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Cave broke his self-imposed moratorium on lyric writing in 2017 and his simple yet poetic self-comforting thoughts are here among more familiar fantastical storytelling fare. What is different is the delivery, with Cave breaking on occasion into a fragile falsetto over his most ethereal music to date.

The aptly named Ghosteen is, effectively, a two-part suite comprising a consistent sound palette of spare piano and ambient analogue synth where rhythm and, to some degree, melody is a fluid concept. It’s beatific, and a bit boring over 70 minutes. Is this what grief sounds like when it’s part of the furniture?

There is dynamism of sorts embedded in the ether. Spinning Song and Bright Horses switch suddenly from third person fabulism to a more arresting first person confessional, while Waiting For You represents conventional balladry by Cave standards, again using his upper register to beseeching effect.

Night Raid is suffused with deep gamelan chimes and a Tom Waits-like noirish whimsy. The siren hum of Sun Forest is subtly coloured with woodwind and dolorous piano and organ before Cave intones his pastoral/celestial vision. Galleon Ship drifts at a stately pace and Ghosteen Speaks is the next chain in this extended prayer.

Part two of this double album brings strings and a more expansive scope. The 12-minute title track features words of hope before returning to the funereal organ and a more explicit meditation on mortality as Cave combines personal lullaby (“baby bear he has gone to the moon in a boat”) with eloquent philosophy (“the past with its fierce undertow won’t ever let us go.”)

Closing track Hollywood is more openly lachrymose, with Cave almost howling the word “wounds”. But Ghosteen is overall a more elegant catharsis. As Cave sings in a quavery tenor, “it’s a long way to find peace of mind,” he sounds resigned but not defeated. Fiona Shepherd