Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds Ghosteen Ghosteen Ltd
“Over time I have learned that the opportunity to say goodbye is the ultimate privilege,” wrote Nick Cave recently in a letter on Red Hand Files in response to a fan who asked if he had any regrets.
Begun last year, the Red Hand Files gives fans a chance to ask Cave anything they like. He read 50 letters a day. They ask him about grief, about his past, about his life. His responses provide a profoundly intimate insight into his world. Earlier this year, when asked about whether he feels his late son Arthur is communicating with him, Cave wrote feeling his presence all around him, even if it isn’t real – of the soothing power of the idea of an afterlife. “These spirits are ideas… our stunned imaginations reawakening after the calamity… Ghosts and spirits and dream visitations… are precious gifts that are as valid and as real as we need them to be.”
So here is Ghosteen – Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ 17th record and the first wholly written since Arthur’s tragic death – a double album that attempts to make sense of immense, life-altering grief. It’s an album that Cave refers to as both “a migrating spirit” leading him out of the darkness and the final part of a trilogy of albums he and the Bad Seeds began with Push the Sky Away and Skeleton Key.
It’s said that grief can’t be shared. Yet on Ghosteen Cave takes grief’s impossible weight – its overwhelming vastness – and attempts to share the unfathomable pain and also the deep well of love that is irrevocably intertwined with it. Anyone who has been touched by grief knows how profoundly it changes us – and for Cave, it has pushed him to “write beyond the trauma… to propel [myself] beyond the personal into a state of wonder”. It makes for a record that feels both like a meditation and a salve. This is his chance to say goodbye.
Ghosteen is a transcendental album, an extraordinary and devastatingly soul-wrenching record. It fits all the despair and love he can carry into the smudged shapes of songs. These are tracks that flicker with love – illuminating a record that could have been unremittingly dark. The songs are heavy but also weightless, places where imagination and reality weave together. You feel at times like you’re in a lucid dreamscape, as he shares memories which are both slippery and rich. “There’s nothing wrong with loving something you can’t hold in your hand,” he tells us on the title track. Meanwhile Bright Horses is dense with metaphor until Cave stops himself, coming back down to earth with a thud: “The horses are just horses and their manes aren’t full of fire / and the fields are just fields and there ain’t no Lord.”
The first eight tracks – ‘the children’, as Cave describes them – are like waves that lap gently under his words. The weightless, drifting style of these songs helps create the perfect soundscape for Cave’s tales, providing an intimacy that invites you in. There’s aching pain in here, of course, but there’s also joy in the memories and a sense of the closeness that was snatched away. On the beautiful Ghosteen Speaks he sings in an aching voice over a droning sunrise organ “I am beside you, look for me”, a ghostly choir behind him, while on Galleon Ship he talks about the inescapable memories: “you know I see you everywhere”.
Part two – “the parents” – begins with the title track which sounds like Berlin-era Bowie. On Hollywood he recounts a devastating moment. “Everyone begins to run / The kid drops his bucket and spade / And climbs into the sun” with Cave stood on the shore helpless. It’s a line that stops you in your tracks. As the track ends he tells us “It’s a long way to find peace of mind… And I’m just waiting now for my time to come”.
It’s a reminder that there are no simple answers, but that there is comfort in memories and giving yourself the time to say goodbye. On Ghosteen Cave seems more vital than ever, a master of his craft who has taken the immense nature of grief and channelled it into an album that burns with beauty.