Nick Cave has made a career out of shock and irreverence, spinning tales of murder and blasphemy for the better part of 40 years. But that all changed with the death of his teenage son in 2015. The album that followed that tragedy, 2016’s “Skeleton Tree,” saw Cave’s normal bravado stripped away, his usually authoritative voice cracking under the weight of his grief. It sounds as if it shouldn’t be listened to, like the listener has intruded on a harrowing therapy session.
Cave and his band, The Bad Seeds, have finally returned with “Skeleton Tree’s” follow-up: a double-album named “Ghosteen.” It’s a tough album in many of the same ways as “Tree,” maybe even tougher because unlike “Tree,” all of its songs were written in the aftermath of the death. But while “Tree” presented a dead end, “Ghosteen” sees the light at the end of the tunnel, the possibility Cave may soon be able to live his life again.
The album begins with “The Spinning Song,” which starts as a continuation of Cave’s career-long obsession with Elvis Presley. One of Cave’s early classics, “Tupelo,” told the story of Elvis’s birth, and this focuses on his death, the “king of rock ‘n roll” laid low by a stay in Las Vegas. But in the last third, the song shifts gears into Cave warbling, “And I love you,” over and over, with such hurt in his voice, it’s clear it’s not Elvis he’s addressing. It’s as if he tried to be Nick Cave one more time, and the grief overwhelmed him mid-attempt.
Much of the first part of “Ghosteen” is a tough listen for how broken Cave still sounds. Many songs close with Cave repeating simple mantras to himself like he’s trying to remind himself there are other things to think about than his own grief until he resets to tragedy for the next song. Even his distinctive baritone is warped into a lonely, crying falsetto at times, revealing a man changed in every way by trauma.
Stylistically, “Ghosteen” is in line with the more electronic sound that the Seeds tried out in “Skeleton Tree” and 2013’s “Push the Sky Away.” “Sky” was still fundamentally a rock album, just with some new wrinkles, and “Tree” went so far into electronic abstraction it abandoned conventional melody altogether, but “Ghosteen” splits the difference between the two. It’s certainly not a rock album, with the Seeds’ rhythm section mostly sitting it out, but it’s the most beautiful album Cave has ever made.
The buzzing, harsh electronic textures that made certain parts of “Tree” so punishing are gone, replaced by gorgeous walls of synth that sound more like the score to “Blade Runner” than any past Nick Cave album. “Tree” sounded unbearably intimate, but “Ghosteen” sounds epic, complete with a large choir of voices backing Cave and showing him he’s not alone in his struggle. With a little bit of distance, Cave has mustered the strength to make his pain as big, beautiful and terrifying as the world itself.
Cave has said the first half of “Ghosteen” is “the children,” and the second half is “their parents.” As such, the first half is haunted by the memory of innocence lost, and the second half is attempting to get past it and back into maturity. There are just two songs and one spoken word piece in the second half, but they provide a powerful catharsis for the pain of the rest of the album.
As the second half opens and the album’s title track plays, the listener is greeted with a sweeping string section, bringing up memories of Cave’s beautiful orchestral score for “The Assassination of Jesse James” and better times for Cave. When Cave’s vocals come in, he sounds newly resilient, still wounded but closer to the hardened Cave of a decade before. Even as the song and its partner go beyond 10 minutes long, he hangs in there, not being any less sad but at least finding some inner calm.
“Ghosteen” is an overwhelming album in every sense but rewarding even in its darkest moments. Cave has invited the listener on a journey with him, and if the experience will be rough for both of them, the final destination is worth it. Cave closes the album by saying he’s “just waiting now, for peace to come,” and unlike in “Tree,” that peace doesn’t seem quite so out of reach.