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A surprise from Nick Cave, rock's pre-eminent poet

'Carnage', an album by Cave and his long-time collaborator Warren Ellis, came as a surprise release on 25 February

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds at the 2009 Glastonbury Festival

In December, Nick Cave mentioned on The Red Hand Files, the online site where he answers fans’ questions on just about anything, that it was “time to make a record”. He didn’t offer details. The album Carnage, by Cave and his long-time bandmate and collaborator Warren Ellis, came as a surprise release on 25 February, sans fanfare. A robust set of eight songs, Carnage is an album for our unusual times.

Ellis and Cave have worked together on numerous soundtracks for films, including The English Surgeon (2007), The Road (2009), Hell Or High Water (2016) and Wind River (2017). But Carnage is their first music album together. It is, partly, the work of the duo, rather than the full band, because of the extraordinary circumstances. Presumably, it would not have been easy for Cave to work on an album by assembling his usual band, the Bad Seeds, the septet of which he and Ellis are members.

The new album, which comes at a time when Cave and his band have not been able to tour or record together, sounds like the product of deep introspection brought on by the enforced solitude that most of us, everywhere in the world, have been experiencing during the spread of covid-19.

Carnage is a treat. Cave’s songwriting has always been deep and his highly literate lyrics are sheer poetry. In 2019, he released Ghosteen, the third of a trilogy of albums, and one that was written and composed after a tragedy in which he lost his teenage son. In 1996, he released Murder Ballads, an album of songs all extraordinarily themed on the act of murder.

But then Cave, an Australian native who turned 63 last September, is an extraordinary musician. He has released more than 24 studio albums, the bulk of them with the Bad Seeds, but also with his earlier bands (The Boys Door and The Birthday Party, and another side project, Grinderman).

In addition to the soundtracks Ellis and he have composed, Cave has written several books and screenplays, and has also acted in films. Ellis, 56, also Australian, is a multi-instrumentalist best known for his virtuosity on string instruments and the piano.

In keeping with Cave’s style, Carnage’s songs are lyrical troves to explore and interpret. The duo offer their fans a treasure. Once Cave’s legions of fans—they cut across demographics and geography, ranging from the very young to the very old—get over the unexpected treat of a new album, they can (and possibly will) put his newest release on multiple repeats to enjoy his lyrics, delivered in his typical sprechgesang (speak-singing) style.

After the deeply autobiographical Ghosteen, Carnage takes stock of the impact the pandemic has had on life. On The Red Hand Files, Cave said the album is “a brutal but very beautiful record embedded in a communal catastrophe”.

The song themes are wide-ranging. In the opening song, Hand Of God, Cave sings of the forces of nature and a higher power (There are some people trying to find out who/ There are some people trying to find out why/ There are some people who aren’t trying to find anything/ But that kingdom in the sky/ In the sky).

In White Elephant, the theme is more about politics, and the Black Lives Matter movement (I’m an ice sculpture made of elephant-sized tears/ Raining gas and salt upon your heads/ The president has called in the Feds/ I’ve been planning this for years/ I’ll shoot you in the fucking face/ If you think of coming around here/ I’ll shoot you just for fun).

Cave’s lyrics are always poetry. Profound and powerful. And the songs on Carnage are no different. Ellis’ music ranges from trance-like electronica to sparse, delicate string and keyboard accompaniments, always perfectly complementing Cave’s deep baritone.

In Balcony Man, Cave sings: What am I to believe?/ I’m the balcony man/ When everything is ordinary until it’s not/ I’m the balcony man/ I’m two hundred pounds of packed ice/ Sitting on a chair and in the morning sun/ Putting on my tap dancing shoes, oh my lap dancing shoes/ In the morning sun. It’s exquisite.

Cave’s fans will be grateful for the new album, especially because it comes at a time when despair, anxiety and uncertainty have become non-negotiable elements of our emotions. In Albuquerque, a love song, Ellis’ piano and strings is the soundscape against which Cave soothingly sings about something we are all experiencing: We won’t get to anywhere, darling/ Anytime this year/ We won’t get to anywhere, darling/ Unless I dream you there.

Those who have seen Cave perform live—whether it is his indefatigable energy when he is on stage with the Bad Seeds at festivals and other gigs, or is just playing solo, like he did last year at a live-streamed event, Idiot Prayer: Nick Cave Alone at Alexandra Palace—know the intense bond his shows can create between his audience and him.

Sadly, we do not know when it will be possible to experience Cave’s gigs again, but in their absence, albums such as Carnage can bring his fans the music and songs they crave. And prove, yet again, that he continues to be one of rock’s pre-eminent poets.

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

@sanjoynarayan

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