Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Ghosteen
Long before I heard any of the music contained within Ghosteen, I was busy trying to gauge my own feelings about the album’s artwork. I couldn’t decide whether I liked it or not, and truth be told I’m still on the fence. It’s beautiful, a vision of Eden, but something about it doesn’t sit right. Almost like it’s too beautiful. Like how artists and animators can create an image of a “perfect” human face that ultimately no longer seems human as we are intrinsically flawed, we aren’t meant to be perfect. In a way that’s how I’ve come to feel about the music as well; it is somehow too beautiful.
One can’t help but compare it to 2016’s Skeleton Tree. They are like Yin and Yang, two sides of the same coin, two very different ways of approaching grief. Released shortly after the loss of Cave’s son, Skeleton Tree was a visceral expression of pain and loss. Dark and brooding. Sometimes angry, sometimes a little lost, much like anyone would be under such circumstances. By comparison Ghosteen could well be used as the textbook definition of ethereal. The angelic minimalism of it feels so pure and peaceful.
Though these two records have a lot in common, Ghosteen doesn’t end up comparing favourably to the masterpiece that preceded it. On the surface they both share Cave’s finest ever lyricism, but while Skeleton Tree took a dynamic and varied approach to its ambient soundscapes, the follow-up plays like one long meditative piece comprising almost entirely of vocals and subdued synths. When it comes to arrangements, if you’ve heard one song you’ve heard them all. While one album was the rumble of storm clouds on the horizon, the other is just the quiet hum of a world at peace.
Digging deeper, the other issue lies in how the two records connect with the listener. While hopefully most of us will never know the suffering that comes with losing a child, we all know suffering of some kind, and Skeleton Tree captured every aspect of it. The anger, the pain, the confusion, the emptiness. Ghosteen however feels like it transcends beyond grief. As though it comes from a place of understanding and enlightenment, like sensing the whole world in motion and seeing how all we lose and all we gain fits into the bigger picture. The former is something we all can identify with on some level, while the latter feels like it is beyond the grasp of most of us. Between the complex themes and the simple music the album is both too much and not enough for me. Maybe one day when I’m older and wiser Ghosteen can take a place up upon the same pedestal, but for the moment it is just too pristine for me to connect with. A “perfect” human face lacking the flaws that truly make it human.