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A precious gem from a man of many talents

  • Nick Cave’s new album, Ghosteen, is the poet, singer-songwriter’s most exquisite work till date
  • On it, the ethereal songs take sadness born out of personal tragedy and make it wonderfully soothing

Nick Cave at a concert with his band at the Norwegian music festival Bergenfest in 2013.
Nick Cave at a concert with his band at the Norwegian music festival Bergenfest in 2013. (Photo: Alamy)

It may not be that apparent but Australia-born musician Nick Cave’s body of work is gargantuan. Starting from 1979, when he was in a post-punk band called The Boys Next Door (soon renamed The Birthday Party), Cave, who turned 62 last month, has released 24 studio albums, most of them with his current band, Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds. The latest by the band, a double album titled Ghosteen, dropped on 4 October. In addition to his albums, Cave has composed soundtracks or scored music for as many as 20 films and audio-visual projects, authored seven books, written screenplays, and occasionally acted in movies, including two in which he co-starred with Brad Pitt.

Cave’s fans are ubiquitous. And they cut across the common demographics. At his concerts, which usually get sold out in the blink of an eye, you can find older, middle-aged fans, youthful hipsters, even teenagers. And if you are a newbie, it just takes one power-packed Cave gig to get hooked to his music forever.

When he’s performing live, Cave is a dynamo on stage. With his slim-cut dark suit and dark long brushed-back hair, he strides up and down the stage, reaches out to the audience and ensures that there’s never a dull moment even when he’s belting out one of his darkest, moodiest songs.

And Cave’s songs can delve deep when it comes to darkness. A songwriter-poet, Cave (and his baritone that often delivers a spoken-word style) is like a contemporary Leonard Cohen, but with the addition of multilayered music—rock ‘n’ roll, garage punk, noise rock, and even glam rock—to back his vocals. Cave’s songs deal with life, death, love and violence. They can be brooding and yet also uplifting. The new album, Ghosteen, whose release Cave announced casually on his interactive website in response to a fan’s query just a week before it came out, can be seen as the third in a trilogy of releases, beginning with 2013’s Push The Sky Away and followed by 2016’s Skeleton Tree, the latter coming out in the aftermath of a tragedy in which Cave’s teenage son fell off a cliff and died.

Although much of Skeleton Tree was composed before he lost his son, the album reflects the deep grief Cave was going through. The eight-song, 40-minute album isn’t easy listening. Some of the lyrics seem to relate to the personal loss he suffered but overall the album’s theme is of struggling and coping with tragedy. Cave delivers his vocals against a semi-ambient layer of music, which is, at times, forebodingly haunting and can have the effect of being emotionally wrecking for the listener. Yet, Skeleton Tree is an alluring album, begging for repeats after you get hooked to the songs.

After the death of his son Arthur, and possibly trying to come to terms with that loss, Cave, who has been a bit of a recluse in the past, has grown more open to the outside world. On his website,, fans can ask him any question and Cave, sans mediation, answers most of them—honestly, deeply, and often provocatively. And, of course, always articulately. The Red Hand Files is a great read—inspiring and healing.

Last year, Cave also began a tour, Conversations With Nick Cave, in which he interacts with fans in intimate settings, answering their random questions in an impromptu manner, and interspersing these interactions with solo performances of songs, accompanied only by a piano that he plays on stage. Those gigs are not only unique but demand a lot of confidence and courage, particularly when the questions are not prearranged or vetted. Needless to mention, tickets for the Conversations’ series fly off in minutes after they go on sale.

Ghosteen is Cave’s first album to be made in its entirety after his son’s death and it reflects the way he has come to terms with that immense personal tragedy. The album is themed on a recurring spirit that reappears in the lyrics of the album’s song and is described in the chorus of the eponymous track on it: A ghosteen dances in my hand/ Slowly twirling, twirling all around/ A glowing circle in my hand/ Dancing, dancing, dancing all around.

Ghosteen’s predecessor Skeleton Tree, steeped in grief, may have also betrayed an element of hopelessness that can occur after a huge tragedy. The new album is different.

First, there is the music. The piano, analogue synthesizers, flutes, violins and vibraphones dominate. For the most part, conventional drum-based rhythm is omitted. Warren Ellis, Cave’s long-time collaborator, co-producer and director of the band, creates dreamy electronic soundscapes that form the background for Cave’s exquisite lyrics. And, unlike on Skeleton Tree, the lyrics of all the 11 songs on the double album (Cave calls the eight on album 1 “the children", and the three on album 2 “the adults") were written in the aftermath of his son’s death. What results is a palpably overwhelming aura of sadness, but sadness of a kind that emerges after one has come to terms with one’s loss.

The lyrics, sheer, profound poetry, are what make Ghosteen a wonderful album. On Fireflies, he part-speaks, part-sings: Jesus lying in his mother’s arms/ Is a photon released from a dying star/ We move through the forest at night/The sky is full of momentary light/ And everything we need is just too far/ We are photons released from a dying star. Delve into any song on Ghosteen and you will find lyrics that are at once sad, soothing and brilliant. With this album, Cave has evolved yet again in his eventful career to emerge as rock’s pre-eminent poet, a worthy successor, it might seem, to other great poets of rock such as the late Cohen.


Five tracks from ‘Ghosteen’ by Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds to bookend your week

1. ‘Fireflies’

2. ‘Waiting For You’

3. ‘Ghosteen Speaks’

4. ‘Bright Horses’

5. ‘Leviathan’

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

Twitter - @sanjoynarayan

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