The one time I was able to see the Australian band Nick Cave & The Bad Seed play live, they delivered a set in the afternoon on the 1994 version of the Lollapalooza festival, the year Beastie Boys and Smashing Pumpkins were the headliners. Fresh from the release of Let Love In, which included “Red Right Hand,” both a successful single and the theme song for the TV gangster drama “Peaky Blinders,” and their concert album, Live Seeds from the year previous, Cave stalked the stage growling out in his inimitable baritone as his band rocked so hard and dark that you didn’t notice that the sun was still shining. In the intervening decades, Nick Cave has turned more and more often to his piano, and while his language continues to cut deep and wide, his balladry creates a very different impression, best heard and experienced in the concert film and live album from last year, Idiot Prayer, featuring the singer in solo performance.
While Cave’s two previous studio albums included The Bad Seeds, the quieter, darker, ambient tones of Skeleton Tree and the grief stricken balladry of Ghosteen felt like idiosyncratic, profoundly personal statements, backed primarily by on violin, synths by his co-composer and co-producer Warren Ellis. Beyond their work together in The Bad Seeds, the duo have collaborated on over a dozen movie and TV soundtracks and scores, so it made perfect sense in this difficult pandemic season, for Cave and Ellis to work together on the 8 songs that make up this unexpected, surprise release, Carnage.
Nick Cave as a lyricist has long had an interest in the spiritual, the primal and the sexual, human relationships and our complex relationships and struggles with ethical living, and of course, the last two albums were created in the shadow of the accidental death of his teenage son. This time around, Cave’s poetic leanings are wrestling with familiar motifs, right down to “Reading Flannery O’Connor with a pencil and a pen,” in the album’s title track, where he’s remembering a time long past with fondness, “a barefoot child with fire in his hair,” as the sun shines on his head, leaving the warm cozy feeling that “it’s only love driving through the rain/And down the mountain like a train.” Lyrical themes and images repeat through the 8 tracks, and this time the grief has evolved into a passion for life and the threat of violence not unlike the death of George Floyd in “White Elephant” as a reversal where “A protester kneels on the neck of a statue/The statue says ‘I can’t breathe’/The protester says, ‘Now you know how it feels.” Then imagines that “I am a Botticelli Venus with a penis… And I am coming to do you harm/with a gun in my pants full of elephant tears…/I’ll shoot you in the face for free.” But then the song resolves into a Gospel chorus refrain with the promise that “A time is coming/A time is nigh/For the Kingdom in the sky/We’re all coming home/For a while.”
Musically, Cave is writing strong lyrics, which he and Ellis match with some of the more accessible melodies they given us since 2013’s Push Away The Sky, like the pretty, if mournful “Albuquerque,” perhaps a reflection of the pandemic shutdown and the fact that “We won’t get to anywhere, darling/Anytime this year,” washed in an elegant string arrangement. In “Old Time,” Cave recalls a romantic getaway: “The same sun made always glorious at your head/Well, stopping at a motel and go jumping into bed/Just like the old time/Yeah, wherever you are, darling, I’m not that far behind.” And Ellis’ electric violin and guitar responds to each line with a thrilling musical response. The many sad “goodbyes” in life can make it feel as though we stand on “Shattered Ground,” but every day is a fresh start, “everything is ordinary until it’s not” for “The Balcony Man,” who has learned that “this much I know is true/The morning is amazing and so are you.” It’s the voice of a man who’s made some level of peace with the chaos and conflicts of modern life, concluding that “what doesn’t kill you just makes you crazier.”
Carnage was released in late February without any advance notice, for streaming and digital downloads from all the major vendors, with CDs and vinyl versions expected by late May. The more familiar song structures in use here, more than the last two, would seem to lend themselves more easily to full band interpretations, so if Nick Cave & The Bad Seed are ready to get back out on the road once we’ve put this virus behind us, I imagine a live show incorporated some of these tracks would be pretty amazing.
Key Tracks: “White Elephant” / “Albequerque” / “Old Time”
Artists With Similar Fire: Tom Waits / Leonard Cohen / Arctic Monkeys
– Reviewed by Brian Q. Newcomb