When he first emerged as a leading light of the post-punk underground in the early 80s, Nick Cave could hardly have seemed further removed from anything remotely related to progressive rock. As drug-munching frontman with The Birthday Party, he made spiky swamp rock with malevolent overtones, before forming his own band, The Bad Seeds, for 1984’s From Her To Eternity. From then on, The Bad Seeds began to provide Cave with an extraordinarily versatile and distinctive vehicle for his always literate and emotionally supercharged lyrics.
Over the past 30-plus years, Cave and his band have recorded a huge catalogue of critically acclaimed and often wildly successful records, perennially hailed by the mainstream but never bland enough to become part of the furniture. Still, for Prog readers at least, genuine prog credentials have been hard to discern.
All that changed, albeit subtly, when Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds released Skeleton Tree in 2016. A more free-form and experimental record than any of its predecessors, it brought woozy ambience and elements of musique concrète into Cave’s amorphous formula, all of which added great atmosphere and depth to tracks that seemed to burst hazily from the ether and then vanish with similar transient grace. By anyone’s standards, Skeleton Tree was a profoundly progressive record.
In 2019, Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds marched even further into prog territory with the surprise release of Ghosteen. Although it’s doubtful that Cave spends much time sitting around and listening to old prog records, the spirit of exploratory art rock is evident throughout the record’s 69 mesmerising minutes. The album’s first half is a rollercoaster of emotions, underpinned by surging analogue keyboards and a frequently drum-free sense of oceanic drift, with a smattering of heart-rending ballads, which all seem to nod towards Cave’s grief following the tragic death of his son Arthur in 2015. Elsewhere, Sun Forest and Leviathan are exercises in surging drones, sweeping strings and a thrilling disregard for conventional structure, which has strong echoes of Peter Hammill’s recent solo work.
The second half of Ghosteen is just devastating. The 12-minute title track combines the romantic orchestration that Cave has long employed with the otherworldly sheen of Bowie’s Berlin period, before morphing into a twinkly eyed psychedelic vista worthy of imperious, late-60s Scott Walker. The closing, 14-minute Hollywood is even more absurdly ambitious and peculiar.
Impressively, Ghosteen has already continued Cave’s laudable run of hugely successful albums. He is one of the most instinctively progressive artists operating in music today and Ghosteen is a mind-blowing masterpiece.