In exploring the world of grief he entered after the death of his 15-year-old son, Arthur, Nick Cave has compiled an album of haunting spiritual beauty. By Chris Johnston.

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ Ghosteen

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I’m trying to find the emotional centre of Ghosteen, the transcendent new album by Nick Cave and his band, The Bad Seeds. It seems futile. There seems to be no single revelatory moment masquerading as a door through which to enter this world of great sorrow and even greater hope. Not one. This is because Ghosteen is a kind of afterlife of its own: haunted and indistinct; holy and strangely, uniformly peaceful. It is done, it is finished. This is another place altogether.

Where are we? What is it? Is it a place of purgatory, of passing through? It’s clearly an epitaph for and suite of memories – more sensations, in the end – of Cave’s son Arthur, who died in an accident near his family home four years ago. He was 15, and a twin. Cave has spoken since of the “netherworld” his family plunged into. Ghosteen is that netherworld. He says a ghosteen is a “migrating spirit” and it manifests in his songs as a speckle of light, a flicker. This he hangs on to. The ghosteen is gone, but never leaves. One of the great gifts of this album is Cave’s generosity and courage. And also his wisdom to share his sorrow in order to correct the balance of what he has lost. Or at least to try.

Cave gave a series of long interviews to GQ magazine a couple of years ago, Arthur’s death still raw, the avalanche of words and music still to come. He spoke of this other world, an “alternate reality” where he realised that the defining event of his life was not the sudden death of his father but the sudden death of his son. More recently, during a “Conversations with Nick Cave” event in Ireland, he said words to the effect of: “What’s the worst that could happen? It already has.”

So this core of Ghosteen is not a core at all: it is nebulous, its shape constantly shifting, its definition and focus elusive. There are countless mentions of suns and stars – Cave’s psychic nebulae – private galaxies exploding into dust and gas and re-forming. It’s a record of rebirth. Far from being maudlin or morbid or, indeed, dark, it is full of light and hope and the promise of new beginnings. This is the generosity of it. These areas, the elegy in art to a dead child, are not exclusive to Nick Cave by any stretch. I think of Ralph Waldo Emerson and his “Threnody” for son Waldo, dead at five from scarlet fever in 1842: “The wintry garden lies unchanged / The brook into the stream runs on / But the deep-eyed boy is gone”. Cave’s touch though, as you might expect from the great songwriter on his 17th and most difficult album, is exquisite.

Details of the making of Ghosteen are scarce. It has been a surprise release with no publicity. We know it was recorded incrementally through this year and last, mainly in Los Angeles. Cave has said it belongs in a trilogy with the two albums that came before it, Push The Sky Away and Skeleton Tree, which is possible to see and hear but wouldn’t be an immediately obvious link to make, such is Ghosteen’s individual force. A sequel to Skeleton Tree seems more apt, that determinedly minimal and brittle – and strange – collection of songs written before Arthur’s death but refined, in part, afterwards. Cave’s songwriting changed around The Boatman’s Call in 1997: “Into My Arms”, “Lime Tree Arbour”, “There Is a Kingdom”, “(Are You) The One That I’ve Been Waiting For?”, “Green Eyes”. These songs are also touchstones on Ghosteen.

The Bad Seeds’ role here is fascinating. More than ever, in a shift that began with The Boatman’s Call, they are content to be almost imperceptible. As far as I can tell, only one song has traditional bass and drums, and even then, only a very distant echo. Cave’s right-hand man, Warren Ellis, has gone nuts on synthesisers again – he loves a microKORG – as well as his loops and pedals, flute, violin, piano and singing. The tone is reverent and intense. Newish member George Vjestica – who played guitar on many of the highly atmospheric Cave and Ellis film soundtracks – is also credited.

Those soundtracks (The Road, West of Memphis, The Proposition and Loin des hommes, aka Far from Men) are the closest sonic links between Ghosteen and Skeleton Tree: tiny details repeated and reprised; spooked, classically inclined electronics; bells and chimes; wind and air. One of the misgivings I’ve already heard from members of the public about Ghosteen is that it merely sketches beds of synthesised music for Cave to speak over. This is to sell it very short. In the search for the centre, I keep coming back to the album’s third song, “Waiting for You”. It has a melody I keep hearing in my head, over and over, long after the songs are gone. It’s like “Into My Arms” or “The Ship Song” in that way – quiet but immense, with pristine trademarked piano. Only now, in a dignified and epic performance, Cave finds notes he hasn’t found before.

“Waiting for You” begins on the beach and it is unsure, the beach being the line between land and sea as well as between conscious and subconscious. The song’s story is about being frozen at the edge. “Your body is an anchor,” Cave croons, “never asked to be free. Just want to stay in the business of making you happy.” Then when he pauses, his mind explodes, the sky explodes, the language goes Bruegel: a mad priest, calendars turning as time slips, a “Jesus freak on the street”.

The album is divided into two parts. The first, Cave says, “are the children”. The second “are their parents”. The second part has two very long, very studied songs, one on either side of the stunning (and short) “Fireflies”. They are “Hollywood”, which partly uses the ancient Buddhist story of Kisa Gotami, who lost her only child but gained nirvana from Buddha after realising no home was free of death, and “Ghosteen”, the title track, in which regret, deep affection and a kind of cosmological yearning revolve around a central image: “a ghosteen dances in my hand”. Cave doesn’t even begin singing this one until the four-minute mark. It is sustained, long-form beauty and sad wonder in a song.

The ghosteen is the centre, I realise that now. The invisible centre. The wandering spirit that no one can really see, only feel, the “photon released from a dying star” or the “fireflies a child has trapped in a jar” of “Fireflies”; the “spiral of children” climbing to the sun in “Sun Forest”; the “little white shape dancing at the end of the hall” in “Bright Horses”. It’s a beautiful record and a wonderful tribute to Arthur. The imagery is literally out of this world. It’s beautiful too, surely, that in a time on earth Cave describes in “Bright Horses” as when “everyone is hidden and everyone is cruel … no shortage of tyrants and no shortage of fools”, he can stand at the edge and, in effect, ask the spirit or spirits for help and for signals, and not be ashamed to do so.

 

Arts Diary

MUSIC We Are Twenty

City Recital Hall, Sydney, October 30

VISUAL ART Brett Whiteley: Lavender Bay

Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, until May

FASHION Collecting Comme

NGV International, Melbourne, October 31—July 26

THEATRE Limit

Bakehouse Theatre, Adelaide, until November 9

LITERATURE Terror Australis Readers and Writers Festival

Venues throughout the Huon Valley, Tasmania, October 31—November 5

THEATRE Cosi

Sydney Opera House, November 1—December 14

LITERATURE JLF Adelaide

Adelaide Festival Centre, November 1-3

SCULPTURE Sculpture by the Sea

Bondi to Tamarama Beach Coastal Walk, Sydney, until November 10

CINEMA British Film Festival

Cinemas throughout Sydney, October 29—November 24

Cinemas throughout Melbourne, October 30—November 24

INSTALLATION Flight

Queensbridge Square, Melbourne, October 30—December 8

MUSEUM Velvet, Iron, Ashes

State Library of Victoria, Melbourne, until July 12

VISUAL ART Deams: Re:frame

Backwoods Gallery, Melbourne, until November 2

Last chance

VISUAL ART Art Deco from the National Collection

Ipswich Art Gallery, until October 27

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 26, 2019 as "Seeds of healing".

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Chris Johnston is a Melbourne writer and co-author of The Family.

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