NICK CAVE & WARREN ELLIS
Goliath Records – digital out now
Released on LP/CD on 21 May 2021
After two intensely personal albums infused with grief, Nick Cave has made a “brutal but very beautiful record nested in a communal catastrophe.” Brutal, beautiful and occasionally very funny, finds Tim Cooper. 10/10.
Religion has always been deep in the soul of Nick Cave. Old-time religion, Old Testament religion. It’s there in the biblical narrative of his life, it’s there in the shiny threads of his preacher man persona, it’s there in his Southern Gothic prose. Most of all it’s there, deep down in the grooves of his latest album, Carnage.
It’s right there in the opening song, Hand Of God, with Cave channelling biblical imagery like the old-time prophet he has always resembled in his flared suits and flapping collars and snakeskin boots, selling salvation to his ever-growing congregation.
If anyone had told you – or me, when I first saw Cave 40 years ago at the helm of his almost unlistenably confrontational band The Birthday Party that he would one day be filling arenas, we would have laughed in their face. And yet… here he is.
Like all the best music since the blues begat rock’n’roll, his songs are rooted in the elemental stuff of life and death, love and loss, suffering and salvation lie. They are filled with elemental imagery – fire and water, rivers and mountains, the sun and moon – and conveyed with a passionate fervour that can boil over into fury and, occasionally, into deadpan humour. You’re never too sure.
Cave, of course, has every right to be furious. Furious at the world, furious at fate for the cards he was dealt. Furious at God. “I’ll shoot you in the fucking face if you think of coming round here,” he warns in White Elephant, a song that reminds us of Cave’s capacity to mine the darkest depths of his soul for dark humour; albeit one that was understandably absent from his recent work.
He might “shoot you just for fun” but the weapon with which he will carry out this atrocity is a “gun in my pants full of elephant tears,” and he will be bearing “a seahorse in each arm.” Meanwhile, in the sparse, skeletal album closer Balcony Man, he’s Fred Astaire; and then, a verse later, he’s “a two hundred pound octopus under a sheet / Dancing round your world with my hands and my feet.”
That’s the thing with Cave, and that’s the thing with Carnage: the darker it gets, the brighter it shines. Created amid the isolation of lockdown, it’s filled with songs of loneliness but also with songs of escape; of imaginary journeys – partings and arrivals, births and deaths, hopes and dreams.
One song, Albuquerque, is literally a lament for those bygone days of travel. “We won’t get to Amsterdam,” he sings, picking out a pretty piano melody in what is otherwise a hymnal ballad, “Or that lake in Africa… And we won’t get to anywhere / Any time this year.” We all know that feeling, only too well.
On another song, Lavender Fields, he sings of how “I’m travelling appallingly alone / On a singular road” before the massed voices of a virtual church choir arrive to remind the narrator (and listener) that “There is a kingdom in the sky.” And to remind us that, at heart, and despite his penchant for florid flourishes of sex and violence, Cave has always been a Gospel singer.
Just as we all lie awake at night pondering what will become of our lives, of our world, the same big existential anxieties course through Cave’s work like the mighty river he depicts in that opening song Hand Of God. Thematically reminiscent of Tupelo from The First Born Is Dead, there’s a river where he will “swim to the middle” – a baptism, perhaps – “where the current rushes by”, where a “singing boy” throws pennies into the waters from a bridge.
Ah yes, the singing boy. Childhood is a theme that runs through the album, as you might well expect from a man whose last two albums dealt directly with the death of his son. Birth and death are abiding images. Amid the throbbing sub-bass of Old Time “a child is born on this trembling earth,” while in Carnage, there’s “a barefoot child watching in the rain.” And in the sombre, hymnal Albuquerque, “a child swims between two boats, her mother waving from the shore.”
Always the fear of loss, hovering above every image of innocence; understandably, poignantly so, in a set of songs imbued with regret but filled, too, with hope, making it a continuation of Ghosteen, the redemptive catharsis that followed the bleak, pained confessional of Skeleton Tree.
But while those albums were personal in their concerns, Carnage is an outward-facing affair, not only inspired by lockdown but created under its restrictions – hence the absence of Bad Seeds beyond Warren Ellis, playing a dozen different instruments alongside Cave’s piano and vocals.
Danger lurks beneath that ominous throb in Old Time, its tinkling piano and skittering percussion a counterpoint to “a thing with horns” at the side of the road, as an eerie viola shudders and scrapes, squeaks and creaks. “Wherever you are, darling,” sings Cave, his mournful baritone suffused with sadness, “I’m not that far behind.”
But it’s not all mournfulness and melancholia. Those who might have been missing what we might call the “old” Nick Cave – the one who plays with words for fun, the one who sang of “Hannah Montana in the Mexican savannah” in Higgs Boson Blues – will enjoy the aforementioned White Elephant.
Over another synth bed, building to a euphoric climax amid all-too-familar images of protesters kneeling on the necks of statues, Cave throws in another of those memorably absurd comic couplets: “I’m a Botticelli Venus with a penis,” he sings, “Riding an enormous scalloped fan.”
You’ve got to laugh; and soon the song turns into a full-blown gospel singalong (“A time is coming, a time is nigh, for the kingdom in the sky”) as keening guitars and violins create wave upon wave of heavenly bliss. It’s a reminder that if there’s a signature to these songs, it’s the way they turn around on themselves, musical proof that redemption is at hand.
The title track, Carnage, set to a soothing heartbeat and a gentle melody, opens with images of chicken slaughter before another choir, backed by tinkling chimes, sings an celestial chorus: “It’s only love.”
There is much love here, in Cave’s poetry: “The moon is a girl with tears in her eyes,” he sings on Shattered Ground. The girl is waving goodbye, as the girls often are – like the girl in Old Time – throwing bags in the back of a car again, leaving our protagonist by himself again. “I will be all alone when you are gone,” he sings. “My pieces scattered all around.”
But by the end a new Nick Cave is beginning to emerge from the darkness. In the final song he’s “a 200lb bag of blood and bone / Leaking on your favourite chair.” Which is not an image you want to dwell on, not even when he turns into an octopus. Then the choir arrives and Cave joins them in a euphoric declaration of the power of love, over and over again: “This morning is amazing and so are you.”
Redemption, at last, is at hand.