Artist: Nick Cave and Warren Ellis
Genre: Singer / Songwriter
Released: 25 February 2021
1. Hand of God
2. Old Time
4. White Elephant
6. Lavender Fields
7. Shattered Ground
8. Balcony Man
NICK CAVE AND WARREN ELLIS
"And it's only love
With a little bit of rain
And I hope to see you again"
Emerging from the grimiest depths of the post-punk scene of the late 1970s, Nick Cave has continued to push his music creatively and progressively for over 40 years. For any group, that’s an extremely long period of time. And for someone as poetic and confessional as Cave, it’s more than enough to create an extremely rich image of how much time can change a person, as well as their values and perspectives. During the late 70s and early 80s when Nick was in his twenties, much of the music that he created with his band The Birthday Party occupied the deepest and darkest corners of the human psyche. Their abrasive and violent musical style reflected this, with drilling guitar-sounds and Nick’s signature deep, growling vocal style acting as an extension to the dark absurdity of the lyrics. And while the shift to his current group with The Bad Seeds, in the early 80s, denoted a stylistic step towards the romantic and gothic, the brutality that underlay those early Birthday Party records still remained.
Throughout the next few decades, Cave and his band would continue to create music that walked the line between the picturesque and the malevolent. Many of their albums and songs were beautiful, but they were often filled with malicious and evil characters, something that Cave excelled at bringing to life; his growling voice and stark figure allowing him to embody dark, even mythological personas. And even with the inclusion of albums such as “The Good Son”, which balanced out the cynicism of much of the group’s discography with a sense of hope and optimism, their music has always felt at constant battle with itself. This was, in part, a representation of Cave’s struggle with substance abuse at the time, something that he wouldn’t beat until the late 90s, with the absolutely depraved and evil “Murder Ballads” feeling almost like the final heroin-fuelled bender before Cave went into rehab.
After this, the group’s music would take a sharp left-turn; the calmness and serenity of “The Boatman’s Call” and “No More Shall We Part” feeling like a victory of sorts over Cave’s addiction. The evil that had plagued the band’s music for decades had finally been subdued, and in its place, they had a new beginning. There was a sense of hope that was instilled by the upbeat and vibrant direction the group was taking their sound throughout the next few years. And while 2013’s “Push the Sky Away” brought the energy back down to a more personal level, by far the biggest creative shift in Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds’ entire discography came with 2016’s “Skeleton Tree”, following the tragic death of his son. Although the album had been almost completed before the tragedy occurred, it took on an entirely new meaning in the light of the circumstances. The desolate and minimalistic sound of the record became an expression of death and grief, something that would be more holistically addressed with 2019’s absolutely gorgeous “Ghosteen”, which began the search for acceptance amongst heartbreak. At times, this album even drifted into the realm of becoming spoken word, stripping away all aspects of structure and rhythm, and letting the poetry speak entirely for itself. For someone who has often used eccentric musical styles and exaggerated characters in the past to tell his stories, “Ghosteen” was an extremely confronting and vulnerable album that had Cave unapologetically pouring his heart out. And now, with the sequel to “Ghosteen”, Cave has teamed up with his long-time collaborator, Warren Ellis, to create “CARNAGE”, a fantastic blend of old and new, and a perfect epilogue to its predecessor.
While much of “CARNAGE” feels like a direct continuation of “Ghosteen’s” minimal and ambient aesthetic, particularly throughout its second half, it’s also somewhat of a return to the more aggressive sound that encompassed Cave’s music throughout the 90’s. And while it still addresses themes of loss and grief, there’s an even more powerful and enduring sense of meditation and reflection on the past that weaves its way throughout the record. Many of the songs here depict Cave in his later life; an old man sitting on his balcony, reading, and reminiscing on the different stages of his life. This sometimes manifests in the form of frustration and anger, such as the track ‘Old Time’, which has Nick seemingly desperate to escape from his past, feeling dragged to his knees by his history. And at other times, it comes in the form of peace and reconciliation, such as the title track, where he comes to the realisation that he can’t allow himself to become a slave to the tragedies that he has faced. The music reflects these opposing perspectives accordingly. “Old Time” isn’t too far removed from some of the material that he was putting out during the 80s and 90s. There are bursts of screeching guitars, a driving bassline, and Cave’s vocals are commanding and powerful. In comparison, “Carnage” is gentle and contemplative, finding clarity and acceptance in its quieter moments. It also includes one of the simplest, yet most poignant lines on the entire album, where Cave refers to the prevailing power of love, despite the inevitable and devastating force of death. Coupled with some gorgeous, subtle instrumentation, the song stands out as one of the most affecting and profound moments on the album.
The other tracks throughout the first half of the album, “Hand of God” and “White Elephant” are similarly excellent, and display some of the experience that Cave and Ellis have had while working on film soundtracks over the last two decades. “Hand of God” is an incredible opener for the album, with Nick casting biblical, poetic phrases over a pulsating and cinematic soundscape. The vocal layering used towards the end of the track is particularly excellent, culminating in a fantastic conclusion that creates a haunting introduction to the record. “White Elephant” has a phenomenal and incredibly tense build-up throughout its entire first half, channelling the aggression of Cave’s earlier lyricism perfectly, and directing his anger and distaste towards the acts of systemic racism and police brutality that have been more prevalent than ever over the last year. It has a breath-taking first half, but unfortunately the pay-off doesn’t quite manage to stick the landing, despite being fantastic on paper. The production unfortunately feels extremely flat here, which is strange considering how great the rest of the song, and this entire album, sounds. I really want to love this whole track, considering I absolutely adore the first half, but every time it feels as though it’s about to explode into a cathartic and satisfying conclusion, it just ends up fizzling out instead.
While the first half of “CARNAGE” includes a fairly wide range of styles, featuring a mixture of cinematic and minimalistic sounds, the latter half instead feels more like an extension of the ideas that he was exploring throughout “Ghosteen”. And with the exception of ‘Albuquerque’, which is by far the weakest and most tedious track on the album, these tracks are a really great addition that wrap up both “CARNAGE” and “Ghosteen” nicely. ‘Lavender Fields’ is another great track that has Nick reflecting on his life, this time describing it as a singular road that he must walk down, no matter how difficult it may be. He compares the various afflictions and hardships that he has endured to lavender stains on his skin, which despite being a grievance, are an inevitability on the road he takes. By making peace with those grievances, he’s able to make peace with himself.
In the final track, “Balcony Man”, Nick is finally able to reach the enlightened realisation of the beauty of the present. After spending years of contemplation, he’s finally made peace with himself and his personal tragedies, and he’s able to emerge from them with a newfound appreciation for everything that he loves and cherishes in the world. The record ends with him expressing this openly: to his wife, and to the morning sun, which he seems to be happy to see, for the first time in a long time.
“CARNAGE” isn’t quite as focused as either of its predecessors, “Skeleton Tree”, or “Ghosteen”, but it’s an incredible conclusion to what feels like a really strong trilogy of albums, each exploring different perspectives on life, death, and grief. Although there is a slight dip in quality in the middle section, with the underwhelming conclusion of ‘White Elephant’ leading directly into the fairly weak ‘Albuquerque’, the record does a great job of telling an extremely compelling story of Nick struggling to come to terms with his past. And where “Skeleton Tree” and “Ghosteen” were still in the midst of battling with the most difficult stages of grief, “CARNAGE” tells the story of Nick finally being able to make peace with the awful tragedy that shattered his life in half. This is a gorgeous and affective record that combines styles from Nick’s older music with his newer, more ethereal sound. It’s unclear where Cave will take his music after this, as this feels very much like a natural conclusion to a story that began back in 2016 with “Skeleton Tree”. But for someone as consistently excellent as Nick Cave, “CARNAGE” is only further indication that he is still at the top of his game, 40 years on.
"This morning is amazing and so are you
You are languid and lovely and lazy
And what doesn't kill you just makes you crazier"