Published Oct 07, 2019The past decade has brought both prosperity and tragedy for Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. With a few notable exceptions, many of the same musicians have been present for both the hushed, transitional Push the Sky Away and the elegiac, ambient Skeleton Tree. This consistency has coincided with a great deal of adversity: Cave's son Arthur died during the recording of Skeleton Tree, and longtime pianist Conway Savage passed away last September.
Ghosteen is the first Bad Seeds project to be fully written, recorded and released in the wake of these losses, and the spectre of death looms over this 68-minute double-album. Coupled with that loss of life is a loss of faith, and one of the album's many animating principles is the restoration of the latter. "Bright Horses" and "Waiting for You" describe a world that has lost its magic, before suggesting that solace is found only with loved ones. Beauty offers salvation when an Edenic paradise is torched on "Sun Forest"; that song's notion of heavenly ascent is immediately repeated on "Galleon Ship."
It's all very heady, which is in keeping with the Bad Seeds' recent output. Described by Cave as the conclusion to a trilogy that began with Push the Sky Away, Ghosteen synthesizes that album's loose narratives and cosmic scope with Skeleton Tree's recursive, interior songwriting. It's a monolithic record: immense, imposing and impossible to fully comprehend with a single listen.
Which isn't to say that Ghosteen is an alienating experience; on the contrary, its music is often warm and delicate. With its measured synth bells and serene harmonies, "Night Raid" is what Leonard Cohen's Various Positions might have sounded like with Angelo Badalamenti behind the boards. Vocals take on an instrumental quality, stacking into chords on "Bright Horses" and settling into a calm ebb-and-flow on the chorus of "Ghosteen Speaks." Even when the final three tracks grow more pensive or menacing, the album's diffuse music offsets its lyrical density.
In the face of enormous loss, Ghosteen finds comfort in what worldly wonders remain. It surely ranks among Cave and company's most ambitious efforts, and maybe among their most affecting, too. (Independent)