- 23 Oct 19
Songs Of The Faithful Departed
It was a cold soul that didn’t feel for Nick Cave and his family on the tragic loss of their son in 2015, the worst nightmare of any parent, any human. Accordingly, Skeleton Tree was, at times, a harrowing listen, although Cave claimed the songs predated his loss, like Dylan has always maintained the mortality-baiting material on Time Out Of Mind came before his brush with the reaper. Ghosteen continues in a similar vein - for how could it not? – with Cave documenting his anguish through work of rare beauty, transmogrifying unspeakable pain into high art.
The music is, as one might expect, sombre. Washes of analogue keyboards, punctuated by acoustic piano and semi-choral backing vocals. The words ‘ambient’ and even ‘prog’ spring to mind. The long opening section of the title track might remind you of the Bowie and Eno of ‘Warszawa.’ Nothing even approaching percussion appears until the half-way mark of ‘Leviathan’, and, even then, it’s only a skeletal rumble.
It is Cave’s lyrics and his voice - ranging from spoken word, through sonorous tenor, to plaintive falsetto - which must carry the most weight. Irish ears cannot help but wonder if the album’s title is a reference to a small ghost, the taibhse beag that haunts this record. The title track concedes that the centre cannot hold and “things tend to fall apart.” “He kisses you lightly and he leaves... baby bear, he has gone, to the moon in a boat” – words that would shatter the hardest of hearts. ‘Ghosteen Speaks’ might well be Cave imagining a spirit at its own funeral - “I think they’ve gathered here for me... I am beside you, look for me.” Take pity on the artist forced to relate these feelings.
‘Bright Horses’ - one of the most beautiful things Cave has ever recorded – knows that “the little white shape dancing at the end of the hall is just a wish that time can’t dissolve.” Jesus, in his mother’s arms, resurfaces repeatedly, as an image of innocence lost to “a man mad with grief.” A man who accepts in ‘Fireflies’, with an air of resignation, that “there is no order here… nothing can be planned.” T.S. Eliot wrote that “those who have crossed… to death’s other kingdom remember us – if at all - as the hollow men.” Pain has emptied Cave, worn him down: “We crawl into our wounds… there’s little room for wonder now.”
The album is bookended by ‘Spinning Song’ with its promise that “peace will come” and the epic ‘Hollywood’, which has Cave still “just waiting now for peace to come.” Grief never truly heals, it merely subsides with time. This is an artist laying himself bare, this is art as bleak as it is beautiful, and one can only hope it offers some sort of catharsis - some modicum of relief - to its creator.