The Lowdown: Life, it seems, is marked by separations. Hard lines are drawn daily between night and day, dream and reality, and most severely, life and death. This last dichotomy has always haunted post-punk legend Nick Cave, as he writes in his Red Hand Files: “For most of my life, I felt a strange gravitational pull toward an undisclosed traumatic event.” This “dreadful yearning,” as he describes it, manifested itself in Skeleton Tree, a barren and bare-boned album gravely interrupted by the loss of Cave’s son, Arthur, who died during the album’s production.
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“I called out/ Right across the sea/ But the echo comes back empty,” Cave laments on that album’s titular closing track. In these lines, Cave describes the grief-stricken void — “the vast and darkened belly of the beast” — the loss of his son created. When Cave finally resolves at album’s end that “it’s alright now,” it’s hard to know whether he believes that’s true. But grief, like all change, is a process. Three years removed from Skeleton Tree, Cave continues his exploration of grief on Ghosteen, a record that blurs the hard lines of life’s separations and searches for peace, love, and beauty.
The Good: Swirling synths are the first sounds heard on Ghosteen, signaling a continuation of the Bad Seeds’ recent ambient minimalism. This time, the simplicity is mesmerizing, inviting us into meditation as light piano pieces and sparse, melodic lines weave through an omnipresent haze shimmering with feathery light. Across this soundscape, Cave builds a dream world filled with prancing fire horses, stairways to heaven, and ghastly specters travelling down rain-glossed streets. Each line evokes poetic scenes with a vibrancy to rival the best of literature and cinema.
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Like Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, Cave’s world questions our idea of reality. “We’re all so sick and tired of seeing things as they are,” he remarks on “Bright Horses”, reminding us that our hearts yearn for something more wonderful than just what is seen. Imagination and reality are not at odds, Cave seems to argue, nor are the physical and the spiritual. “There’s nothing wrong with loving something/ You can’t hold in your hand,” he sings on the title track, a reminder that love is much more mystical than we perceive.
Love is the propelling force and most important meditation of Ghosteen. It’s what breaks down the barriers between life and death, allowing Cave to remain connected to the spirit of his son. “I am beside you, you are beside me,” Cave sings from his son’s perspective on “Ghosteen Speaks”, as he remembers that “nothing is something where something is meant to be.” At times, the absence of something or someone is felt more tangibly than their presence.
Cave expresses this on closing track “Hollywood”, the album’s darkest trek into grief, where he awaits death, reunion with his son, and a final peace. It’s a hard, but necessary song that grounds the record in the understanding that grief, even the healthy display of grief Cave shows us across Ghosteen, hurts like hell. As he closes this chapter of what is sure to be a lifelong process, Cave recounts a tale from a Buddhist myth, reminding himself and the listener that everyone has experienced grief. It’s through our shared sorrow and empathy for each other that we find the strength to fully live.
The Bad: Though Ghosteen’s emotional meditations on life, love, and grief offer little to critique, the first side’s closer, “Leviathan”, offers the least insight and clashes tonally with the first seven tracks. The song’s haunting repetition of “I love my baby and my baby loves me” feels a bit unsettling, darkening the shimmer that pervades much of side one. Despite this, the sonic tension created by late-album tracks like “Leviathan” and “Hollywood” parallel the reality that grief and hope are not opposites, but rather siblings always in tension with each other.
The Verdict: The biblical book of Hebrews says, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Never has an album expressed this idea clearer than Ghosteen. Though grief and loss left Cave searching for answers, he is by no means aimless. “Sometimes a little faith can go a long, long way,” he sings on “Waiting for You”, believing with conviction that one day he will celebrate a reunion with his son.
But faith doesn’t necessarily make the journey easy. Though he knows love and peace will carry him to the end, Cave, like Bono, still hasn’t found what he’s looking for. “It’s a long way to find peace of mind,” Cave repeats at the album’s close. Even so, as difficult as it is to feel, Cave has been assured since the beginning of the journey that “peace will come in time.”
Essential Tracks: “Waiting for You”, “Galleon Ship”, and “Ghosteen”