We Are Here And You Are Where You Are: A Conversation On Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ “Ghosteen”

Last week, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds released their devastatingly beautiful album Ghosteen, inspiring wracking sobs and the discovery of emotions we didn’t even know we still had. Since both your faithful co-founder Emily Colucci and contributor Adam Lehrer are longtime Nick Cave stans, we dried our tears and decided to talk it through together:

Emily Colucci: I finally achieved listening to Ghosteen all the way through without weeping so I think I’m ready to actually talk about it.

Adam Lehrer: I don’t want to say this is an album about healing so much as it is an album about how, while no one is ever truly healed from grief, there is solace in love and solidarity.

EC: I don’t think it’s about healing either, but an acceptance of grief and the inevitability of loss. At the A Conversation with Nick Cave event I went to in September, he spoke about how after his son’s death, with more interactions with his fans during the conversations and his newsletter The Red Hand Files, he realized that everyone was grieving in some way and was looking for some sort of connection. I think this is basically one of the major points of the album. It’s the universality of grief, and the endless draw of the past and its losses on the present. He references the past and its undertow in both “Sun Forest” and “Ghosteen.”

The one thing that moves me so much about the album too is its insistence on belief and faith as valuable, as well as mythology too. The album opens with an invocation of Elvis–Elvis as this mythological figure, which, of course, he’s done before with “Tupelo” and his utterly batshit view of late Elvis as representative of the crucifixion and resurrection.

AL: Elvis died to save his myth from his sins. Elvis died so the wholesome American boy with the swiveling hips could live and the fat pill-addled lounge singer could die. Elvis died to save rock n roll nostalgia (it wouldn’t work for long, but it was a valiant effort).

EC: Yes! It’s interesting the album begins there and then spins (yes, “The Spinning Song”) off into something else altogether. I keep thinking of the circular aspect of some of the repeated lyrics (“Peace will come”; “Time will come for us”) that are in both “The Spinning Song” and album’s conclusion “Hollywood.” Plus, just the swirling, otherworldly aspects of the music itself. Someone in one of the Nick Cave fan groups is a hypnotist, and posed that Warren may be studying sounds that hypnotize people, which seems very apt for the album and just Warren in general.

AL: The opening muted chords of “Higgs Boson Blues” always made me feel like a Maenad was casting its hypnotic orgiastic spell. But what you said about the past and the present, I got a clearer sense of the hauntological from this album than any previous Nick Cave album. Cave has always been interested in the past. Even in The Birthday Party, the band’s true innovation was restoring the libidinal swagger of the blues to de-sexualized post-punk and noise rock. But even then, these blues influences were still thoroughly what Mark Fisher called “pulp modernism,” that is using well-worn modernist tropes, not in the sense of a postmodern ironic riffing, but in the sense of the pure forward-momentum power of it. They fused something old into something present and came out with something new. This strain of modernist invention has defined much of Cave’s oeuvre.

Ghosteen, however, is highly hauntological. Its aesthetic, while new for The Bad Seeds, often resembles a kind of melancholic synth pop. The artists I thought of the most while listening to this were the more exuberant emotional British synth pop groups of the ‘80s like David Sylvian’s Japan or OMD. And lyrically, it is invested in the present. It says, “There might be no future, and that’s ok. The only truth we can have is finding solace in the now.” While normally Filthy Dreams readers know me as being deeply critical about late capitalism’s allergies when it comes to creating anything new, but this criticism doesn’t apply to Cave here. His hauntology is one that like other great hauntological musicians, from Joy Division to The Caretaker to Oneohtrix Point Never, says that the future has been slowly erased, so to make this present into something beautiful, we must embrace the haunting of the present by the past. But in this case, Cave is talking about actual memories and loss, not specifically about pop culture and economics. “The ghosteen dances all around.” The ghosteen is forever present, fluttering about your consciousness bound to the present. You can either avoid it, or you can watch it and bask in its beauty.

EC: I love the idea of the ghosteen being always present. It reminds me of one of my favorite lyrics on the album on “Bright Horses”: “The white shape dancing at the end of the hall is a wish that time can’t dissolve at all.” It’s always there in the present.

I’m also glad you brought up “Higgs Boson Blues” because there’s a through line to be made between the three most recent albums Push the Sky Away, Skeleton Tree and Ghosteen. Not simply sonically, though the almost opulent synth pop on here is a departure from the sparseness of Skeleton Tree and even Push the Sky Away, it has lyrical echoes as well. For example, Ghosteen ends with Nick driving to Malibu (“I’m nearly all the way to Malibu”) in “Hollywood,” rather than Geneva in “Higgs Boson Blues” (“I’m driving my car down to Geneva”).

AL: It’s absolutely true. This is one of the greatest trilogies in the history of pop and rock n roll, and it’s come some 35 years into The Bad Seeds’ career, and forty years for Cave when factoring in The Birthday Party. The only band that has managed a similar feat is Swans, but unlike Swans, The Bad Seeds never stopped. Ghosteen can be seen as the final album of the third phase of Nick’s career. The first phase is that of the junkie goth libidinal vampire or noise punk in The Birthday Party and early Bad Seeds albums (and briefly, revisited as an alter-ego old man pervert, who unlike Cave, never grew up in Grinderman), the second would be the bluesy, swaggering troubadour of southern gothic murder ballads in the middle phase of The Bad Seeds, and these last three albums are Nick Cave as wisened, if not softened then certainly warmed, elder statesman of sophisticated poet rock n roll.

EC: Warmed. There’s certainly a different energy to these three albums, especially on Ghosteen, but it also exists on those two records that I’d describe as generous. There’s an awareness of the audience, and a knowledge that he’s bringing us with him on this journey. His older work–narrative-driven or not–is very self-contained in its own world. This trilogy has an opening outward that’s certainly visible in the live shows too, not to mention the conversations, newsletter, etc.

AL: And also, remember Susie Cave commented publicly on Nick’s creepy lyrical prophecies. Can anyone now listen to Cave howl “I’m falling, I’m flying, look at me now” in “Jubilee Street” without thinking of the tragedy that would befall Nick Cave’s child? So now Push the Sky Away is a premonitory document of Cave’s lyrics moving from allegorical fiction to autobiographical memoir. Push the Sky Away is the premonition, Skeleton Tree is the dreadful fall-out and bleak vision of despair and loss, and Ghosteen is the beautiful, mesmeric closure.

EC: It’s akin to a before, during and after. Everyone pinpointed Skeleton Tree as the “grief album,” but Nick has insisted that a lot of it was written before his son’s death. Ghosteen though… THIS is a grief album in all its complexities and moments of beauty. That’s what’s probably the most shocking part of the album: its sheer transcendent beauty. I feel like I’ve been to church after listening to it. It’s amazing to think the same band who growls out, “I’d crawl over 50 good pussies just to get to one fat boy’s asshole” in “Stagger Lee” would make something this objectively beautiful.

AL: He has always had a taste for the transcendental though, no? He’s very much a Nabokov acolyte, so there has traditionally been this balancing of libidinal angst and confused religiosity. I think what has caused this shift is that real loss has befallen him, and that has blurred the boundaries between Cave the performance and Cave the man behind the performance. Let’s face it: Nick Cave has lived a rather charmed life for a long time. How many artists are able to get to that level of success without ever making something commercial or lame? He was addicted to drugs, yes, but he didn’t die, overdose or really even experience any major career setbacks. But something about a real loss, the loss of a child, has made him want to expose himself and be vulnerable. That’s the case with The Red Hand Files, and that’s the case with Ghosteen, which is kind of the soundtrack to The Red Hand Files, no? I mean, more and more it’s becoming Nick Cave and less The Bad Seeds, and this project is the least performative music he’s ever made and the most he’s bared his soul in the way that Fiona Apple or his hero Nina Simone once did. There’s also just no way he’s as sex-crazed now as he was when he wrote “Stagger Lee,” and was a 30-something year-old stud rock star. Loss and grief just kind of over-write desire in a way. 

EC: He’s always had a taste for the transcendental, but I wouldn’t say the music itself was transcendental. But talking about desire, he did mention a potential Grinderman 3 album recently, which would be an interesting if startling shift.

AL: I’ve heard this, and it’s interesting. I love the first Grinderman album and parts of the second, and bluesy noise punk (from the Gun Club to extremists like Cows) make up a large part of my favorite music, so this is exciting to me. But I also see this as Cave missing the performance, the character that he created and lived as, but never totally was. There’s that scene in 20,000 Days on Earth when he tells the actor Ray Winstone that, unlike Ray who wells up with anxiety about performing, that he loves it because it “allows him to become the thing that he’s always wanted to be.” With this project serving as the most vulnerable he’s ever been, I’m sure there’s a part of him that would like to step back into the role of dangerous sexualized libidinal rock star.

EC: And he still does live. He’s still launching himself into the audience during “From Her To Eternity” in a terrifying and jarring way after playing something like “Magneto.”

AL: There is still no better rock performer than Nick Cave. Bad Seeds shows remind you of the power of the sold-out arena rock show. Cave and Warren have the same onstage electricity of Jagger/Richards, or Page/Planet without the toxic misogyny of both, or the cock rock philistinism of the latter. Rock n roll can be literary, grandiose and sophisticated, but still rock. The Bad Seeds have made sure of that.

I also must say, as a mostly heterosexual cisgendered man in the arts, Nick Cave is the ultimate man to look up to. At every stage of his career, he provided a masculine archetype for men of his age to model himself after. He was a fashion icon and tastemaker as far back as The Birthday Party. He later would show rock dudes the importance of literature and storytelling, and now he’s showing men the power of self-awareness, vulnerability, tenderness and love.

EC: Love runs all through Ghosteen. I think it’s in the song “Ghosteen,” where he says, “There’s nothing wrong with loving something you can’t hold in your hand”

And yes, Nick is encouraging rock bros to read.  Literature has always run through his work. Even in The Birthday Party, he was referencing Kafka. And talking about inspiring, honestly after I heard about his son’s passing, I thought he may never end up recording again. I mean, a lot of people might not have. But he’s shown this incredible power in creativity. He’s always been a furious worker, but still, to be able to articulate grief and loss in the way he did on this record is incredible.

AL:  Yes, one could make parallels here between Ghosteen and Joan Didion’s My Year of Magical Thinking, another wrenching but ultimately sublime document of grief and healing, and the inability to heal. Though there’s that line in the book where Didion says we “must relinquish the dead,” which is just so Didion but also probably not what Cave believes. Cave seems more inclined to believe the opposite of this–that the dead can’t ever be relinquished, and that the absence of a lost loved one manifests as an eternal presence. Again, the ghosteen dancing in my hand.

EC: He certainly believes the opposite. He has one line in “Sun Forest” about “And the past, with its savage undertow, lets go.” But then, he amends it later on “Ghosteen” to “the past, with its fierce undertow, won’t ever let us go. Wont ever let you go.”

AL: In his excellent review for The Quietus, Patrick Clarke said the album inspires a sense of wonder. It’s true. Can loss be wondrous? I suppose it can–it heightens the perceptual acuity of consciousness. Loss, like sex or dancing to Aphex Twin on MDMA, surely makes you know you’re alive.

EC: “And we all rose up from our wonder” as he says in “Night Raid.” I think there is a sense of wonder in it, and a real emphasis on beauty and love, as well as an acceptance of the fragility and temporariness of life. He starts “Ghosteen” with “This world is beautiful.” That line has a much different feel than the Nocturama opener “Wonderful Life.” My mother, who some Filthy Dreams readers will know as Mama, listened to the album after I posted everywhere about ugly crying to it. She said something about how they say in death, everything is learned, but it seems like Nick is clued into some knowledge about life after this loss. One of my favorite tracks on the album is the spoken word “Fireflies” just in that evocative image of us all being fireflies trapped in a little boy’s hand, and photons released from a dying star. It’s bleak, yes, but also portrays a real momentary beauty.

AL: “I am here and you are where you are.” The humility of that line is stunning. He doesn’t claim to know anything; he only states the truth to the extent that he could know it. He’s still here, and Arthur is where he is. Brutal, and tragic, this is the best we get. But he still tries to extrapolate beauty from that. That makes me think of the album cover, which is the most silly-looking album cover The Bad Seeds have ever done. But I think it makes a statement: when you’ve grieved like I’ve grieved, magical forests and unicorns and the hope that they entail don’t feel as silly anymore.

EC: Yes I adore that Thomas Kinkade, mall art cover. I want to plaster it all over my apartment. It’s also the light juxtaposed with the complete darkness of the Skeleton Tree cover. But I totally agree with the statement it makes, and it’s one Nick has expressed about belief in general recently and on the album. Not just religious belief but any kind of belief, including believing in horses with burning manes as in “Bright Horses.” It makes me think of “Mermaids” off of Push the Sky Away as being a forbearer to this emphasis on belief too: “I believe in God. I believe in mermaids too. I believe in 72 virgins on a chain. Why not, why not?” But there he’s asking “Why not?”, whereas he seems to be insisting on belief against reason on Ghosteen.

AL: It makes me think of the appeal of Terrence McKenna as a philosopher. McKenna used psychedelics and meditations to cure himself of existentialism. Sartre believed that truth could only be obtained from within; McKenna believed that truth could be found within, from others, and from nature. Ghosteen would suggest something similar, that there can be a truth outside ourselves. And even though the cold Nietzschean in me doesn’t agree, Cave makes me want to agree. I want to believe, goddamn it!

EC: Same! I like that it’s anti-rationalism in some respects. Nick’s saying, “I know these things aren’t true. But I can believe them to be.” “Horses are just horses.”

AL: Right, I just thought about Lovecraft, and how the limits of knowledge and what’s outside those limits can be construed as immensely terrifying. But Cave’s body of work now focuses on concrete reality as a violent horror show, while looking beyond reality as something beautiful and unifying. Faith. There is something better because there has to be something better. It reminds me of the third season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Cordelia, after being cheated on by Xander blames her downfall on Buffy’s arrival. She makes a wish to the vengeance demon Anya (soon to be made a delightful serious regular) that Buff never did come and boom, they are in an alt-dimension in which supreme vampire being the Master has turned Sunnydale into vampiric Sodom and Gomorrah. But, Giles learns of the demon and breaks the spell with Anya protesting, “How do you know the other world is any better?” “Because it has to be,” he replies, before smashing the amulet thing. Nick Cave, Lovecraft, Buffy–the trifecta.

EC: Hahaha! The trifecta! There’s something Lynchian in that too. There’s a whole lot of sleep/dream imagery in the lyrics as well. In “Fireflies,” he says, “We cannot sleep and fear our dreams.” In “Hollywood,” it’s “your dreams are your greatest part.” Not to mention the surrealism of some of the imagery in songs like “Sun Forest” in particular. Ghosteen is sort of like an hour-plus long hallucination or dream.

AL:  What you said earlier too about Warren as hypnotist. Both Freud and even, Jung (who did his thesis on hypnosis) abandoned hypnosis because of the tendency of the hypnotized to be influenced by the hypnotist, which impeded individuation as its desired impact. Freud realized dreams were the more revelatory access way to the unconscious. So perhaps Warren lulls us to sleep more than he hypnotizes us, or that state just before sleep when our inner thoughts start to emerge ahead our our perceptual awareness.

EC: I’m glad you mention Freud because I’ve been thinking a lot about his understanding of melancholia as a refusal to let go of the “lost object,” which certainly brings us back to “the ghosteen dances in my hand.” But talking about the unconscious, that makes me think of one of Nick’s answers at his Conversations event a couple weeks ago. Answering a question about the line in “Anthrocene” “animals pull the night around their shoulders,” he said that he’s using a lot more improvisation in his lyrics. That was apparently an improvised line. He says he does a ton of writing on a song, and then basically puts it aside, goes into record and what comes out, comes out. There’s an accessing of the unconscious there too.

AL: I wonder if Nick would be interested in Pierre Guyotat, specifically in his book Coma that Guyotat wrote while institutionalized, and is a truly feverish and schizoid spasm of language ruminating on both personal and cultural trauma (specifically the displacement of Algerians following the Franco-Algerian war). I’ve always loved how Nick talks about songwriting, He said in 20,000 Days on Earth (I truly love that film), his writing process predominantly consists of placing antithetical concepts next to each other– “a baby and a Mongolian psychopath”–and then filling in the gap with a narrative. But the Guyotat reference, I use simply to demonstrate how heightened emotional states, like madness or grief in Cave’s case, allow one to tap unearthed creative potential. In Anti-Oedipus, Deleuze and Guattari posited the schizophrenic as “the body without organs,” (a term once used by Artaud). The unlocked potential for heightened awareness that remains the domain of the schizoid liberated from capital internment. Nick’s statement here has me thinking that the bereaved individual may also temporarily be “the body without organs.”

EC: I’ve always been into just the imagery of the “body without organs,” let alone the critical theory wrapped around it. I do think there’s some sort of temporary or momentary state of heightened awareness around grief that’s articulated on Ghosteen. An Instagram post recently made me look back at Nick’s first Red Hand Files letter, which could pretty much just be a primer on the album. He talks about finding a sense of wonder to write again: “I have found a way to write beyond the trauma, authentically, that deals with all manner of issues but does not turn its back on the issue of the death of my child. I found with some practise the imagination could propel itself beyond the personal into a state of wonder. In doing so the colour came back to things with a renewed intensity and the world seemed clear and bright and new.”

AL: That quote is beautiful. The ability to both embrace emotion and retain analytical distance from it is easily one of the trickiest maneuvers to pull off in art making. I know I abuse Mark Fisher references to death (I can’t help it, he made me smarter and more political than any of my firsthand teachers ever did), but I can’t help but acknowledge his brilliant essay on The Birthday Party. Fisher credited Cave and The Birthday Party with “pathologizing masculinity,” meaning that they were able to exaggerate their own youthful masculinities in such a way that made masculinity seem less like a triumph than a disease. By heightening this masculinist viewpoint, they were actually able to make smart analysis of masculinity. Fisher writes, “If women want to know what it’s like inside the body and brain of an adolescent male, they can do no better than listen to these songs.” Too true. Cave was a horny drug-crazed teenager, but he had the intelligence to recognize this in himself and was thereby able to make himself into a fascinating caricature of youthful masculine lust. It’s not so much an indictment of masculinity, but certainly a critique of it. And if The Birthday Party made songs that allowed us to see inside the head of a young man full of lust and with nothing to lose, then the tracks on Ghosteen allow us to see into the mind of a wisened man who has lost everything. Paraphrasing Fisher, you could argue that the tracks on Ghosteen pathologize grief. Like Cave said, he wasn’t shying away from the trauma of losing his son, but he also was able to generate some distance between it, so we get this combination of both a lived experience but also a distanced analysis of the lived experience. This ability to both lean into an emotion while also analyzing it is surely testament to Cave’s astonishing intelligence and creativity.

EC: I love that analysis of The Birthday Party. They made masculinity something monstrous, almost drag, even though masculinity is often not seen as something performed. And I agree with you about his pathologization of grief, but also his ability to universalize the emotions. It’s about him and his loss, but the album is so human and vulnerable that it feels like it’s about all of us, and our personal and collective losses too

AL: And, this album, the speaking tour, The Red Hand Files, it makes you think of the loss that we have ALL suffered under individualistic neoliberal late capitalism: the loss of community. The loss of the collective. Nick Cave is literally using his art, his loss, and his platform to build community amongst his deeply devoted fan base. We are Nick Cave fans. We are one. We are together. And the most awesome people are always Nick Cave fans. If I could hang out with one group forever, it’d be Nick Cave devotees no doubt.

The album makes me pine for a modernism in which music was more central to the culture. In an excellent discussion on the topic of the power of volume between Stephen O’Malley (of Sunn O))) etc..) and Kevin Martin (the Bug, etc..), both artists lament that music was losing centrality in and importance to the culture, and they credited this to a loss of collectivism overall. Martin says that the more music has become reduced to background noise, the more dangerous it’s become. And it’s true, there have been an extraordinary amount of incredible records this year. In addition to Ghosteen, I have been obsessed with new albums by JPEGMafia, the Caretaker, Pharmakon, Jenny Hval, Xiu Xiu, Snapped Ankles, Membranes, Vanishing Twin, Dis Fig, Errant Monks, Klein, Danny Brown, Debby Friday, and freaking Bill Callahan! The OG troubadour of spectral tragifolk! There is so much brilliance, too much of it, that the music overwhelms us and is relegated to Apple Music playlists and background sound. But artists like Cave, as well as Sunn O))) and Martin, are still out there, restoring our faith in the power of music, in the glory of music as a transmitter of energy and beauty. We should be happy they are still out there.

EC: Totally, and what you said about Nick Cave fans, on a personal level, I’ve met a whole group of Nick Cave devotees that I only see around his concerts, and yet those communal/collective experiences are some of my most valued experiences. And even having a conversation like this about an album that’s so rich with different angles to talk about is a communal experience!

AL: That’s beautiful, and true. Thank you Mr. Cave!!

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