Ghosteen is an enchantingly ethereal and hauntingly poignant double album from Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – and their most personal record yet.
The album is the experimental rock group’s seventeenth record, and the first to be written and recorded entirely following the tragic passing of Cave’s 15-year-old son Arthur in 2015. The band were recording their 2016 drone-infused album Skeleton Tree at the time, for which the lyrics were primarily written but later altered by Cave to reflect his sudden loss and personal grief.
Three years after Skeleton Tree’s release, Ghosteen is a minimalist masterpiece, utilising an ambient and atmospheric soundscape comprising woodwind orchestration, synthesisers, and loops to accompany Cave’s meditations on death, grief, faith, and existentialism. Australian rock icon Cave describes the first eight songs as “the children” while the three songs in the second half are “the parents”. The opening track ‘Spinning Song’ evokes a sullen atmosphere and references the death of “the king of rock and roll” (possibly an allusion to Elvis Presley). The song also explores the ideas of peace and time through backing vocalist and multi-instrumentalist band member Warren Ellis as he gently sings, “Peace will come in time”.
We as an audience are invited to listen to Cave as he processes his trauma, tapping into his fragility and vulnerabilities as a grieving father and how he tackles the existential crisis of living in a chaotic and irrational world. With his sublime lyricism and crooning about mortality and faith on ‘Waiting for You’, Cave channels his idol, the late poet and singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen.
Ghosteen concludes a trilogy of albums, including Push the Sky Away (2013) and Skeleton Tree, that are linked by their brooding electronic textures and abstract imagery. However, there seems nothing ambiguous in Ghosteen’s final track ‘Hollywood’ as Cave addresses death by declaring, “I’m just waiting now for my time to come”, which is reminiscent of David Bowie’s final album Blackstar (2016).
In a career spanning over 30 years, Cave has been labelled the “Prince of Darkness” for writing songs that are macabre and morbid and about matters which pervade human existence. On the contrary, he is also revered for the plethora of love songs he has written. It is Ghosteen which epitomises Cave’s aptitude to write about darkness and yet reveal the light.