“Once there was a song, the song yearned to be sung…” Thus opens Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ latest album; we begin with a reference to Elvis Presley, who is something of a recurring theme for the Australian rock band, having been the subject of songs such as ‘Tupelo’. Yet there is nothing routine from Ghosteen, this is the kind of album you have to give yourself over to completely (and preferably with a large, strong drink in hand). You cannot listen without somehow being aware of the tragedy that befell Cave in 2015, when his son was killed in a fatal fall. Whilst their last album was all but complete at the time of the incident, this album deals with the themes of grief, religion, death, and acceptance with a pervasive sense of clarity.
The songs themselves are beautiful; I found myself listening to ‘Bright Horses’ on repeat when I first heard it, only to move grudgingly on to the next track and be blown away by ‘Waiting for You’. Both tracks are gut-wrenching, filled with loss, and the wordless call in ‘Bright Horses’ still haunts me now like an ancient funeral wail. During his recent tour, Cave bravely took on unmoderated questions from his audience and whilst none of them outright asked him about his grief, the conversation inevitably took that path and this album perfectly reiterates what happens when “everything has gone wrong”.
There is so much in this album to unpick. It has tones reminiscent of Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits, whilst the piano could be part of a Clint Mansell soundtrack. Yet it is also completely unique in that there is a powerful sense of wonder to the album; Sun Forest conjures up a wild yet beautiful world as “a spiral of children climb up to the sun”. I will reiterate: this is not woefully sad music. Instead, the pain has been turned into raw creative energy and transcends the human realm to include all that we cannot see, yet we can most certainly feel.