“There’s nothing wrong with loving something you can’t hold in your hands,” sings Nick Cave on Ghosteen, his doleful new album with the Bad Seeds. It’s as if he’s granting himself permission for the 11 stark, revealing confessions that occupy these 68 minutes—songs that cling tightly to vanished bodies and phantom limbs; songs that try to to wrap big bear hugs around ghosts and vespers; songs that pledge an intimacy that will last forever, in a world where moth and rust destroy. It’s the first album Cave has conceived since the sudden death of his 15-year-old son, Arthur. (Woebegone though it sounded, Skeleton Tree was largely finished when the accident occurred, its bleak lamentations prescient, perhaps, but not diaristic.) It is at once easy and right to hear Ghosteen as an extended meditation on grief, though it is also worth noting that Cave— seldom one to wear his intentions on his sleeve— never uses the word grief nor even death in these new songs. There’s another word that comes up time and time again, however. “I’m speaking of love now,” Cave sings in the title track, as if that’s not what he’s been speaking about this entire time. Ghosteen is an album about bonds that linger even when flesh and blood turn to vapor; and, about tending to the gardens of a marriage, even when both partners are hobbled by sorrow. You can hear the album as a collection of ghost stories, one in which the spirits themselves rarely appear; mostly we see frail humans going about their daily affairs, as though nothing’s changed, as though everything has. In one of many moments of heartbreaking candor, Cave sings about doing the laundry for someone you’ve lain in the ground. Life’s little rhythms, its daily devotions and acts of service, persist even through shattering disruption. “Love’s like that, you know,” Cave ventures.
Ghosteen is singularly sad, a season of fathomless lament and senseless tragedy preserved in amber; and yet, it’s nowhere close to being the insular downer that you might anticipate. Cave is essentially sitting shiva here. Rather than holing up in a dark room, he’s opened his doors and peeled back the curtains, inviting us, as though we were his very kin, to sit with him in his hour of crisis; to honor his loss with the fullness of our attention, and to receive the generosity of his unmasked witness-bearing. Like the recent Over the Rhine record, Love and Revelation, Ghosteen displays a real wisdom in not rustling for answers, nor reaching for platitudes to tell us everything will be okay. It won’t be, these songs suggest, and there is therapeutic value in simply abiding that truth together. The plainspoken need in these songs reflects the transparency of Cave’s Red Hand Files newsletter, and his ongoing questions-and-answers tour; and, it is reflected in the music itself, as starkly beautiful as anything in the Bad Seeds catalog. Cave says this album completes a trilogy that began with the murmuring Push the Sky Away and reached a harrowing level of low-key abrasion in Skeleton Tree; Ghosteen takes the weightlessness and perspicuity of those recordings and stretches them to their logical extremes. It is the most ambient Bad Seeds album, the most quiet, and the one most demanding to be played loud. Almost entirely drumless, the album wafts and pulses with the sound of analog synths, occasionally rusted over in dirty feedback loops, anchored here and there by Cave’s piano. “Waiting for You,” crisp and romantic, recalls the formal precision of The Boatman’s Call, but more characteristic of the album is “Spinning Song,” which heralds the earthy rock and roll swagger of Elvis Presley above the drone and hum of an vintage keyboard. The record sounds wispy, at times spartan, but it’s also disarmingly beautiful: “Bright Horses” builds from the hymn-like austerity of the piano and the twinkle of a vibraphone into cathartic swells of wordless human voices. It is to the eternal credit of the Bad Seeds that they mostly let their leader hold the spotlight here, though Warren Ellis brings his film scoring bona fides to bear in songs like “Night Raid,” so atmospheric, so drizzly and damp that when Cave’s lyrics reference rainfall, it almost feels superfluous; it’s a perfect concert of dank sound effects and muggy imagery. At the center of all of this is Cave, confessing, confiding, consoling; no, he has never sounded older, but neither has he ever sounded more open or free.
Not for the first time, we hear Cave searching for God from the depths of the abattoir; and just like last time, the results of his questing aren’t entirely conclusive. In “Fireflies,” a spectral spoken word piece toward the album’s end, he scavenges in vain for any sign of the Master’s hand. “There is no order here, nothing can be planned,” he confesses, his divine discontent no less pious than that of the blameless and upright Job. But his struggles for belief seem underscored with an implicit cry for the Lord to help his unbelief. In “Waiting for You” he turns his gaze to a priest and a Jesus freak, both surrendered to the idea that all the present heartache will lead eventually to Christ’s glorious return; Cave isn’t quite there, but he’s tantalized by the solace that a faith vocabulary can bring. Jesus himself is invoked throughout the album, never riding a white horse in victory but only ever lying in his mother’s arms, a crucified son; the Jesus of the downtrodden and the persecuted, the meek and the disinherited. Meanwhile, Cave envisions in “Sun Forest,” we’re all swaying alongside him on some manner of hanging tree. There’s a similarly grim picture painted in “Bright Horses,” where “we’re all so sick and tired of seeing things as they are.” The self-evident cruelty of the physical world makes him all the more eager to take up the vision of faith, and for half an instant, it lets Cave see past the abattoir and into the highlands, his voice curling however briefly in tantalizing joy (“I can hear the horses prancing in the pastures of the Lord”). But the song ends as Bruce Springsteen’s “Tucson Train” does, with the protagonist waiting at the railroad station for an absent loved one to return; in both cases hopes run high, and in both cases it’s unclear whether the holy fool will see his good faith rewarded.
Even in Ghosteen’s roaring quiet and its plainspoken candor, Cave never sounds like he’s alone. If loss has been a catalyst for faith, it’s also been an empathy generator; maybe that’s the point of “Hollywood,” which closes the album with an ominous 14 minutes of clattering low-end rumble. Toward the end of the song, Cave recounts the Buddhist parable of Kisa, who loses her son and is told by the teacher that she can revive him if only she finds a mustard seed from a household untouched by death. Of course, no such household exists; “everybody is always losing somebody,” Cave laments, death not just a momentary interruption but a continuous degradation. It’s a sobering reflection that Cave renders beguilingly beautiful in “Galleon Ship,” where he envisions himself taking to the sky in search of solace. “For we are not alone it seems,” he wonders, “So many riders in the sky/ The winds of longing in their sails.” Loss can feel isolating, but here Cave imagines his trauma as part of a great cloud of witnesses. There is also the witness of Cave’s lost son, manifest here as a fuzzy shape at the end of a corridor, as “a wish that time can’t resolve,” even as the wandering spirit Ghosteen who arrives with strange tidings of comfort and peace. His presence hovers over the margins of these songs, while Cave’s wife and Arthur’s mother, Susie Bick, often seems to occupy the center of the frame. The album is generous in remembering that the grief over a child is never proprietary, and unflinching in portraying the ways it can fray the bonds of marriage. “Ghosteen” alternates between the mundanity of loss and hallucinatory visions beyond the physical realm, at one point settling into a strange and unsettling scene of three bears in a post-traumatic funk: “Mama Bear holds the remote/ Papa Bear, he just floats/ And Baby Bear, he has gone.” In “Night Raid,” Cave looks back to the evening when his twin sons were conceived, seeing it now through a veil of tears; the suffering Jesus is there as well, promising hardship from the start. In “Waiting for You,” husband and wife mourn in chilly silence; all he can offer her is time and fidelity (“just want to stay in the business of making you happy”). “Spinning Song” opens the album with scenes of Elvis and Priscilla, a rock and roll couple fated for tragedy— yet even facing down doom, the narrator has devotion on his lips: “And I love you, and I love you, and I love you, and I love you,” he pledges. It’s a promise he returns to in “Leviathan,” a subterranean trance that serves as the album’s fulcrum. “I love my baby and my baby loves me,” chants Cave, as though lifting up his daily prayers. It’s one sure thing he can lay his hand to— at least for now.