Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds‘, Ghosteen, is a portrait of a grieving parent. In 2015, Nick Cave’s 15-year-old son, Arthur, died after falling from a cliff. In 2016, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds released Skeleton Tree, often mistakenly assumed to be a reflection of Arthur’s death. However, the album was written before the accident occurred. Therefore, it is Ghosteen that truly depicts Cave’s agony and deftly illustrates his experiences with desolation. Ghosteen is a double album with the first eight songs introduced as “children” while the last three interwoven songs “are their parents” depicts an astounding bereavement. The anguish a parent feels for losing their child is harrowing and Ghosteen masterfully captures Cave’s grief and spiraling rumination on mortality.
Ghosteen‘s lyrics shift between the metaphysical and the quotidian. For instance, on “Fireflies”, he equates existence with “Jesus lying in his mother’s arms / Is a photon released from a dying star”. Furthermore, a surface reading of “Spinning Song” finds Cave recapturing the legacy and downfall of Elvis and Priscilla Presley. Yet the lyrics exhibit the cruel fragility rendered by mortality. Right when the listener realizes the Presleys are merely a vehicle conveying Cave’s reflections on mortality, he intones, “I love you” only to raise his voice into a quasi-falsetto singing “peace will come”.
And sometimes it can, especially when one escapes into happy memories as in the eulogic “Night Raid”. Cave fondly recollects being with his family in a hotel room overlooking a busy city street. The song is underscored by a bell warmly chiming then gradually growing in intensity. Eventually, the bell chimes a cacophonous counterpoint to Cave. Backed by a chorus, the vocals fade with chimeric serenity. Here Cave provides the aural reminder that nostalgia can only cover, never erase, the pain. He reiterates this point in “Sun Forest”, when he laments, “As the past pulls away and the future begins / I say goodbye to all that as the future rolls in / Like a wave, like a wave / And the past with its savage undertow lets go.”
“Hollywood”, the 14-minute finale, finds Cave and his family seeking solace in Los Angeles. Cave’s penchant for parable reemerges with a retelling of the Buddhist legend of Kisa Gotami. When her child dies, she carries its body throughout her village, desperately searching for clarity on how to cope with her child’s death. She learns that loss is a feeling experienced by many and of the universality of death. Accordingly, Cave’s voice raises to a falsetto emblematic of a weeping realization that “everybody’s losing somebody”. Much as Kisa Gotami, Cave finds console in shared sorrow.
The production throughout Ghosteen is nearly perfect. The fading vocal on “Sun Forest” is as powerful as it is vulnerable. Whereas the vocals on “Galleon Ship” surround Cave but arrive and fade at different times, creating a disorienting effect. The Bad Seeds are formidable and cinematic, as evident in the second half’s opening. Their instrumentation musically frames Cave’s anguish.
Throughout Ghosteen, Cave seeks any reprieve from the despair. “Leviathan’s” use of lyrical repetition is emblematic of a calming mantra. The lyrics “Oh my, oh my, oh my, oh my / I love my baby and my baby loves me” create a sense of comfort derived from the predictability associated with repetition. “Bright Horses” portrays the overlap between hope and denial as Cave imagines “the train is coming, and I’m standing here to see / And it’s bringing my baby right back to me”. Cave seemingly accepts his son’s death in the closing “Hollywood”. Yet “Bright Horses” offers a longing for reunification so compelling, the listeners’ will wish it was true as well.
It is too easy to label Ghosteen‘s trajectory from denial to acceptance as an exemplar of Cave’s recovery. Rather, Cave understands sorrow as a nebulous and nonlinear entity permanently modifying the individual. Or as he said on the album’s opening moments, Ghosteen, and by default sorrow, are a “migrating spirit”.