- 01 Mar 21
The Singular Road And The Spiritus Mundi
While I – and I'd guess many others like me – might have hoped for a fire-and-brimstone spitting, bible thumping/humping, cock-waving Nick Cave album – you know, the kind of barely-housetrained animal that howled out the harder bits of Abattoir Blues, or kicked and screamed on Murder Ballads – after the beautiful but harrowing Skeleton Tree and Ghosteen, it was never that likely given what we’re all going through, and the sort of personal pain and grief from which no human being could ever fully emerge, no matter how steely they might be.
Carnage was written and recorded as lockdown was taking hold, so the absence of the Bad Seeds’ swing may have been a practical as well as an artistic choice. One thing is for certain, Cave should light a candle every hour on the hour to give thanks for the day when Warren Ellis turned up to work on Let Love In back in 1994. As a (red) right-hand man, he is a godsend. Grinderman, film scores like The Proposition, and the rollicking and rolling album they put together around the Cave-scripted Lawless offer irrefutable proof of that, if those vital Bad Seeds records weren’t enough. The marvellous record they’ve produced here finds Cave still in a reflective place, but the arm-waving, kneel-before-Zod, old-testament-bruiser is in there, kicking at the box in which he's been confined, anxious to slouch again towards Bethlehem.
The mellow side of Carnage seems wistful for Cave’s old life on the road. ‘Albuquerque’ lists the many places he won’t be seeing for the foreseeable – “We won’t get to Amsterdam, or that lake in Africa, darling, And we won’t get to anywhere, anytime this year, darling”. OK, Mr and Mrs Cave would probably be staying in nicer hotels than you or I, but we can all feel that one. This isn’t the only allusion to travel either. In ‘Old Time’, Cave is “throwing my bags in the back of the car, just like the old times”, in ‘Shattered Ground’, it’s the moon – “a girl with tears in her eyes” – who's “throwing her bags in the back of the car”. Cave also references the spot where he has waited for permission to move. In ‘Carnage’ he’s “sitting on the balcony, reading Flannery O’Connor, with a pencil and a plan” – I know, I’d be calling for Sting’s head for less – and in the beautiful piano-led ‘Balcony Man’, one gets the feeling that he's dangling off the same loose end as the rest of us, “I am two hundred pounds of packed ice, sitting on a chair in the morning sun… I’m a two hundred pound bag of blood and bone, leaking on your favourite chair”. He is, as he moans in the album’s centrepiece, “an ice sculpture melting in the sun.”
It’s in that song, ‘White Elephant’, where the cock-and-cudgel-swinging Cave reemerges. Over a lolloping, corner boy malevolent Ellis groove, Cave declares, with salacious glee, “I am a Botticelli Venus with a penis, riding an enormous scalloped fan”. This white hunter with the gun in his pants will “shoot you in the fucking face, if you think of coming around here… if you so much look at me”. This is the Cave I witnessed claiming to be that “bad motherfucker called Stagger Lee” at an early Electric Picnic, as I stood stock still and silent, 20 yards away, wary of getting closer. This is the Cave I saw in a tent in the same field years later, moaning the ‘No Pussy Blues’ with Grinderman, The Cave who conjured up hellfire in Kilmainham, the Cave who’d batter you as soon as baffle you. He disappears again, the choir take over, the strings head off for Pepperland, and we’re told to get ready for the “kingdom in the sky”, a kingdom that's been there since the opening electro-pulse, string sweeps of ‘Hand Of God’ – surely Cave must have used that title before? - and haunts him at the closing of 'Lavender Fields'.
For the most part though, the “thing with horns” in the ominous ‘Old Time’ “steps back into the trees” and leaves Cave to contemplate the personal. Grief, as it always will, hoves back into view, and Cave knows it for what it really is, “a singular road”. “Here it comes around again, and it’s only love, with a little bit of rain, and I hope to see you again”. He "will hold your hand again", perhaps in that same kingdom in the sky, a comfort he seems to both doubt and hope for in equal measure.
Cave has called Carnage “a brutal but very beautiful record nested in a communal catastrophe”, which is a fair summation, but there are few if any who could hope to match the manner in which he continues to mould the universal from the deeply personal. Carnage is a phenomenal piece of art, where these two giants, these wizards of Aus and old and odd, surpass themselves, again.