Some readers may be a little surprised to see a Nick Cave review on the Americana UK website. After all, he is recognised as one of the leading post-punk artists renowned for his dark and brooding lyrics and seen as the Godfather of Goth by some. Wait a minute though, he is also an outstanding songwriter who has been influenced by many artists linked to the Americana genre. From the very start, John Lee Hooker and Van Morrison were key influences on his music; Johnny Cash recorded his song ‘The Mercy Seat’ and Cave recorded Hank William’s ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’ as a duet with the Man in Black. He also covered the Louvin Brothers’ ‘Knoxville Girl’ and even recorded an album of murder ballads that maintained this venerable folk tradition.
Nick Cave suffered great personal tragedy when his 15 year old son fell to his death from cliffs in Brighton in July 2015 and ‘Ghosteen’, while being the final part of a trilogy of albums that includes ‘Push The Sky Away’ (2013), and ‘Skeleton Tree’ (2016), is his first album to contain songs which were written after the tragic accident. ‘Ghosteen’ is a double album and Nick Cave says of it, “The songs on the first album are the children. The songs on the second album are their parents. Ghosteen is a migrating spirit.”.
The general consensus is that these are some of the most beautiful songs ever recorded by Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds. The music is certainly not the psycho blues of his early days, but rather the Bad Seeds have created something that is more ethereal with vocal, piano, analogue synths and violin dominating, with additional colouring from vocal choirs and a string section. Interestingly, there is largely an absence of drums or rhythm tracks, with the use of limited percussion adding to the overall effect. The contribution made by Warren Ellis on piano, synths, loops, violin, flute and backing vocals cannot be overlooked.
The heart of the release is to be found on the second album, which may be why Nick Cave views the three songs as parents, with the twelve-minute title track being the centrepiece with its message of hope and meditation on mortality. There then follows a spoken word piece before the album’s closer ‘Hollywood’, which follows Nick Cave’s search for peace of mind and solace in the fact that death affects everyone who has ever lived.
The first album opens with ‘Spinning Song’ which features lyrics that reference Elvis and Nick Cave singing falsetto. The lyrics of ‘Bright Horses’ could reflect western folklore with the use of horse and train imagery. ‘Waiting For You’ explores the different approaches taken to grief by Nick Cave and his wife, Susie Bick. Church bells provide the rhythm for ‘Night Raid’, that together with ‘Galleon Ship’ and ‘Leviathan’, are further love songs to his wife reflecting on their real emotional challenges over the last few years.
‘Ghosteen’ is without doubt a major album that will take time to be fully appreciated and understood and is recommended to anyone who is interested in heartfelt music that reflects on very human emotions and represents a cathartic journey that is in the best tradition of all true folk related music.