I never think autumn is as mellow as people make out. Sure, there are misty mornings, and fruits ripening, etc, etc, but there’s a smell in the air and it’s not just bonfire smoke. It’s decay, and the sense of an ending. In the midst of all the dying that surrounds you, the wilting and the falling of the leaves, you have to work hard to hang on to your belief in renewal, to reassure yourself that it will all come back again, just like it has before.
Perhaps, being in this frame of mind, it was a mistake to spend my past few early morning walks on the heath listening to Nick Cave’s new album Ghosteen. It has floored me. In a good way, but still.
Since the death of his teenage son four years ago, Cave has been extraordinarily open in discussing the experience of such trauma. It hasn’t been a forbidden subject, and nor has he shied away from openness in his lyrics. How would such a thing be possible? Certainly this record is the sound of a man whose whole being has been altered, possessed even, by what has happened.
You may have already heard the album, or you may have read a review, and you may be thinking it sounds like the saddest record ever made, and I am not here to suggest otherwise. I am not even here to discuss the music much. Although I find it beautiful in its simplicity, there is not a lot going on. No drums, or rhythm tracks. Not many chord changes, or obvious tunes. A lot of singing that isn’t really singing, with only a few moments when his voice takes flight, soaring up and away from the songs. A hymn-like solemnity throughout; choral harmonies that suggest church, or the presence of angels. Someone says to me on Twitter that the record is “like the soundtrack to a seance”, and I would say amen to that.
So I walk across the damp, chilly heath in the dull light of an overcast autumn morning, and in my ears is this meditation on loss and grief, and really you can’t blame me for feeling moved, a little overwhelmed even.
There are split conker cases underfoot, a carpet of leaves; everything starting to soften, as the ground gives up its baked summer hardness and eases into winter. As the natural world changes, it’s natural that our mood changes, and it’s easy to feel forlorn. So I am primed to receive these songs in the way that I do.
Images and phrases repeat and recur, some of them familiar enough Cave motifs – horses, fire, Jesus lying in his mother’s arms – but the repetitions seem intentional. There is both no particular order to the songs and a very deliberate one – so that instead of any forward momentum, what you experience is a cycle. Pale, ghostly forms dance and shimmer at the edges of the lyrics, flicker in and out of vision, intangible, unreachable, barely there and always there. The word love is stated, emphatically, over and over, until it becomes a solid, all there is left to hold on to.
“The past with its savage undertow” appears in two songs – in one it lets go, while in another, it will never let go, there is no escape. And you feel that both are true. There is no resolution. Songs hint at the possibility of recovery, then revert to despair. The need for acceptance of loss is in constant tension with the impossibility of acceptance.
And there are moments of such tenderness, such gentleness. “A spiral of children climbs up to the sun.” Mama Bear and Papa Bear watch the TV, while Baby Bear sails up to the moon, “in a boat, on a boat”. And someone washes his clothes, because “love’s like that, you know”, and in the end, “There’s nothing wrong with loving something/You can’t hold in your hand.”
As I write all this, I’m about to say it reduced me to tears, when I catch myself. Why reduced? Why do we say that? I’ve never thought about it before. It’s the wrong word to use, it makes a nothing of our feelings.
I will say rather that it elevated me to tears, and I’m grateful. I walk into the café, and the warmth from the hot food counter hits my glasses and they mist up, and all of a sudden I can’t see.
Next week: Kate Mossman
This article appears in the 16 Oct 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Syria’s forever war