Nick Cave’s epic poem The Sick Bag Song opens with a leap into the abyss. “A boy climbs a riverbank. He steps onto a railway bridge. He is twelve years old,” it begins. Walking on this bridge, the boy stands at the middle, gazing down at the river below with a “half-felled tree” that creates a small entryway in the water: “He has been told that it is possible to jump in at this point, but he cannot be sure, as he has never seen anybody do it.” Suddenly, he feels the vibrations of an oncoming train and he’s tasked with deciding between diving into the unknown or getting mowed over by the train. This uncertain leap weaves its way through the rest of the poem, reappearing in fragments like “You must take the first step alone. I move tentatively toward the lip of the world.”
Nick Cave and his Bad Seeds and Grinderman bandmate and musical partner-in-crime Warren Ellis’ new album Carnage, which was surprise released on February 25, also introduces itself through a similar jump into the void. Though it may be less of a chosen leap and more of a shove, one that we can all relate to after being tossed through our contemporary chaos of a pandemic, insurrections, protests and police backlash, climate crises, Twitter frenzies, and quarantine blues.
The first track “Hand of God” starts with a quintessential Nick Cave-ism, a glance toward a higher power accompanied by a simple piano (“There are some people trying to find out who/There are some people trying to find out why/ There are some people aren’t trying to find anything/But that kingdom in the sky”). Lest you be lured into some sort of calm, this piano musing is cut through by a horror film synth-driven descent reminiscent of doom jazz Dale Cooper Quartet & the Dictaphones’ similarly unsettling “Brosme En Dos-Vert” from their album Quatorze Pieces De Menace, which itself also echoes David Lynch’s soundscapes in Inland Empire.
With this rupture, the song transitions into a Suicide-esque driving beat, but Cave and Ellis have replaced Alan Vega’s deadpan “Cheree, Cheree” or “Ghost Rider motorcycle hero” with a high-pitch repeated line “Hand of God! Hand of God!” interspersed with the invocation of a vengeful god harkening back to good old fire and brimstone Old Testament Cave: “Hand of God/Coming from the sky/Hand of God/Coming from the sky/Gonna swim to the middle/Stay out there for a while.” Feeling like a tumble into some sort of hell or at the very least, punishing purgatory, Nick’s lyrics mirror some of the imagery in The Sick Bag Song–rivers, boys sitting on bridges, a precarious balance on the edge (“I’m going to the river where the current rushes by,” “Singing boy sitting on the bridge,” “Throwing pennies off the edge”). However, whereas The Sick Bag Song’s leap sparks the progression of the poem as it moves through The Bad Seeds’ North American tour as told through wild ramblings on barf bags (really), “Hand of God” is an invitation to surrender, only heightened by his repetition of “Let the river cast its spell on me.”
What are we surrendering to exactly? Well, it’s hard not to connect this to the events of the past year when, as Nick sings on the following song “Old Time,” which also includes a couple of horror synths in case you forgot the hand of God with a dash of Grinderman funk: “History has dragged us down to our knees.”
Now, Nick has always had something of the doomsday preacher in him with dystopian imagery pervading his forty-plus year creative output. Rats in paradise. The well of misery. Blood blacker than the chambers of a dead nun’s heart. Lynch mobs, death squads, babies born without brains, and the mad heat and the relentless rains. Hanging mermaids from the street lights by their hair. And the burning trees and the fields of smoke and the black butterflies and the screaming horses. Not to mention all those murder ballads. Even some of his most romantic songs have a cataclysmic aspect, as seen in “Straight To You”’s crumbling ivory towers, seas that swallow up the mountains, and the skies that throw thunderbolts and sparks.
In particular, “Hand of God” recalls another legendary and foreboding water-logged opening Cave number: “Tupelo” from The Bad Seeds’ 1985 The Firstborn Is Dead. With a thunderclap and an ominous “Looka yonder! Looka yonder!” Nick, in his peak 1980s Faulkner-obsessed style, heralds the birth of Elvis and his twin during a calamitous, Earth-shattering hurricane with portentous warnings like: “Ya can say these streets are rivers. Ya can call these rivers streets. Ya can tell ya self ya dreaming buddy. But no sleep runs this deep. No! No sleep runs this deep… O God help Tupelo! O God help Tupelo.” However, while “Tupelo” fictionalizes the world-shaking birth of our King who walks on Tupelo and carries its burden, “Hand of God” and the entire Carnage album feels as if we’re all carrying that burden.
And this marks a departure, or at least a slight one. All of Nick’s previous apocalyptic visions have existed primarily within the realm of the imagination. Sure, there are references that connect to the world as we know it outside of Cave-land–Frappuccinos, Wikipedia, the stock exchange, his wife Susie moving around the furniture, love made monumental. But typically, his songs, whether they’re the humid swamps of his created South or the grief-coated landscape of The Bad Seeds’ previous album Ghosteen, exist in a mythological in-between space, one that is similar to our world, but not quite of it. Even places we can readily identify–Brompton Oratory being one example–become mythic. On Carnage, in contrast, it’s not as if Cave and Ellis set their sights on our world so much as our world in this past year has moved closer to the ones depicted in the songs–violent, terrifying, melancholy with moments of the sublime. As Nick responds to a question in his Red Hand Files newsletter on the album: “Carnage is a brutal but very beautiful record embedded in a communal catastrophe.”
By embedding itself within our communal catastrophe, Nick and Warren continue the generous turning outward of Ghosteen, which seemed like a collective reckoning with grief and the possibility of transcendence or, as Nick would probably say, grace found within. While Ghosteen could make listeners think of their own losses, Carnage harkens to a catastrophe that we have all experienced together at once, making the emotional journey through the album’s eight songs feel familiar (at least to me–hey! I never said I was objective here) even at it’s most surreal (and boy, is it surreal). Even the music itself feels a bit more grounded than the floating synth-heavy, nearly percussion-less Ghosteen. This isn’t to say it’s a complete sonic departure from that previous Bad Seeds album (There’s enough church music here like the holy “Lavender Fields”). In fact, it’s hard to distinguish what makes a Cave and Ellis collaboration different than a Bad Seeds album itself considering the increasing prominence of Warren’s influence on The Bad Seeds’ records since Push the Sky Away.
Nevertheless, this isn’t to say Carnage is an obvious pandemic album–there’s no masks, antimasker wackjobs, Bath & Body Works brawls, social distancing, or COVID-19. It’s not even a political album, though the nefarious “White Elephant” comes close by making clear references to a white hunter sitting on his porch threatening to “shoot you in the fucking face if you think of coming around here,” which refers to Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant,” but makes me think of the Filthiest People Alive, the McCloskey’s, protesters kicking a sculpture into the sea (“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/And kicks it into the sea”), and the President calling the Feds. However, “White Elephant” transcends the temporarily relevant by switching mid-song in a jolt only rivaled in whiplash by David Bowie’s “Station to Station” from the snarling “great grey cloud of wrath roaring my salt upon the earth” (which could be interpreted as the brutality of growing authoritarianism, white supremacy, our divided culture, etc.) into a psychedelic gospel choir that is at once ecstatic and maddening, singing:
“A time is coming
A time is nigh
For the kingdom
In the sky
Don’t ask who
Don’t ask why
There’s a kingdom in the sky
We’re all coming home
For a while”
This avoidance of simplistic timeliness is purposeful, according to Nick who described the problem with writing only in reference to the times in a press conference related to his exhibition Stranger Than Kindness. He explains, “For a writer, I think it’s very easy to become seduced by the times–by the things that are happening now–and to write into that. But it’s also a very dangerous thing to do because very quickly things change and very quickly what you’re writing about is simply irrelevant.” He later spoke directly about the songs that would become Carnage: “It’s dark. It’s really fucking dark. But I hope that’s not a kind of response to this particular moment. That it can live on into the future and not be attached to this particular moment.”
And it isn’t. The familiarity in Carnage comes not from realistic depictions of the past year so much as a structure of feeling. I mean, who can’t relate to the desire to go somewhere (ANYWHERE) and never come back as in “Old Times”’s call “I’m throwing my bags in the back of the car/Just like the old times/Just like old times, baby/And I’m not coming back this time”? Or being stuck not going anywhere as in the lullaby-like “Albuquerque” (“And we won’t get to anywhere darling/Unless I dream you there”)? How about slowly going insane as in “Shattered Ground”(“We bought a house in the country/Where we could lose our minds”)? Or how about “traveling appallingly alone on a singular road” from “Lavender Fields”? Or at the very least, who can’t understand the sense that “everything is ordinary until it’s not” like on “Balcony Man”?
These moments of relatability pop up throughout the album, but don’t overwhelm it as they’re folded into sublimely surreal imagery. With its nonlinear songwriting, the album gives the sense of a random collection of hallucinations that flash into view and disappear (and sometimes appear again). Animals peer out of the woods, only to withdraw into the trees in several songs. A barefoot child steps into a song (“Carnage”), takes a bow, and steps right out again. A sun explodes. The moon is a girl with sun in her eyes (not in the gutter as in 1984’s “The Moon Is In The Gutter”). Some of the imagery tends toward the hilarious, namely “I’m a Botticelli Venus with a penis” on “White Elephant” (Give him the Nobel Prize for Literature now!), or the grotesque (“My uncle’s at the chopping block/Turning chickens into fountains” Ew!).
Certain imagery repeats itself throughout the album, creating an album-long cohesiveness that is rare in our era of streaming music. On Ghosteen, Nick reiterates lines in several songs such as “peace will come,” as well as images of horses, trees, the past with its savage undertow. Likewise, Carnage revisits a similarly religious line: “There is a kingdom in the sky” on “Hand of God,” “White Elephant,” and “Lavender Fields.” But unlike, Ghosteen, there seems to be different weight behind the usages in each song–the early pleading and psychotic off-key shouting transition to the heavenly choral transcendence of “Lavender Fields.” Beyond these consistent phrases, images also traverse the entire sonic landscape–moons, ice, Albuquerque, referenced tangentially in the appearance of “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” in “Old Time.”
With this, there are countless places to dive into as someone who spends way too much analyzing these things, but I’m particularly interested in the a sense of acceleration that pervades the album. Carnage is an album full of motion–rivers, roads, driving, trains, swimming, walking through lavender fields–and even places of transience–motels and hotels. This constant movement is reflected in the music itself with a wildly varied tempo that accelerates and slows, and speeds up again. Even songs that feel like they bring us to more of a stop like “Albuquerque” still contain an imagined–yet denied–traveling (“And we won’t get to Amsterdam/Or that lake in Africa, darling/And we wont get to anywhere/Anytime this year, darling”).
While Ghosteen’s repetition constructed a type of spinning circular narrative reflected in the hypnotic music, Carnage has the feeling like you’re being led through a long, winding lost highway glimpsing this imagery as it flies past. The solo walker in “And I went on down that road” from “Papa Won’t Leave You, Henry” off of 1992’s Henry’s Dream has now become all of us as we drive, walk, swim our way through this collective catastrophe. As Nick sings on “Old Time,” “You and me and the car are lost/We took a wrong turn somewhere.” We sure did! And what’s most important is we are on this batshit ride together, whether we like it or not. Nick repeats on “Old Time,” “Wherever you are, darling, I’m not that far behind.”
And this ongoing velocity reminds me of the use of transience and motion in David Wojnarowicz’s writing and art. I mean, David’s phrase In the Shadow of the Forward Motion sounds as if it could be a perfect description of Carnage, as is his observation from his essay “In the Shadow of the American Dream: Soon All This Will Be Picturesque Ruins” from Close to the Knives: “It was a landscape for drifting, where time expands and contracts and vision is replaced by memories; small filmlike bursts of bodies and situations, some months ago, some years ago.” I know, I know–seems like a stretch, but since Nick opened the door to the album’s connection to art in The Red Hand Files by explaining the dedication of “White Elephant” to artist Thomas Houseago, I feel like I’ve been given the green light to make tenuous connections. Deal with it!
Like Carnage, David Wojnarowicz was interested in the seemingly inescapable pull of history, time (symbolized frequently in his work by trains), and the drifting through landscapes, whether the Southwest or cruising the abandoned Hudson River piers. Movement in David’s work can represent the destructive acceleration history and civilization. This can be seen in the train in his painting Crash: The Birth of Language/The Invention of Lies, built to marginalize and destroy those seen as others, as well as in his photograph Untitled (Buffalo) of buffalo tumbling off a cliff (another moment of descent!).
But, this forward motion can also be a way of finding a sense of fantasy and escape. As David writes in “In the Shadow of the American Dream: Soon All This Will Be Picturesque Ruins,” “If I could figure out a way to remain forever in transition, in the disconnected and unfamiliar, I could remain in a state of perpetual freedom.” This feels similar to the acceleration of Carnage. On the one hand, we’re being swept away by the tide of history, while desiring–needing–to just leap into a car and go. It’s no mistake that Wojnarowicz was also creating during another, still ongoing pandemic, and maybe seeming stuck between cataclysmic events and the need to flee is part of living during the time of HIV/AIDS and COVID-19.
But there is, however, a difference. Whereas David says, “Transition is always a relief. Destination means death to me,” Nick and Warren push us through this winding journey only to slow down and leave us at a kind of stasis with the final song at the balcony with Nick where he’s writing these songs as his wife sleeps. Destination here isn’t death, but a kind of calm amidst the chaos and uncertainty. Though the song is likewise filled with some bizarro absurdist images (“I’m a I’m two hundred pound bag of blood and bone/ Leaking on your favourite chair/As I put on my lap dancing shoes/In the morning sun” …what? Yuck!), it swells to a euphoric high of strings, piano, and the introduction of a choir with the repeated lines:
“And this much I know to be true
Yeah, this much I know to be true
And this much I know to be true
Yeah, this much I know to be true
This morning is amazing and so are you
This morning is amazing and so are you”
With the same sense of comfort delivered in Skeleton Tree’s final “And it’s alright now,” “This morning is amazing and so are you” feels like a relief. It’s a bleary-eyed morning after the rushing through the hallucinatory moonlit night in many of the other songs. It’s the return after your Odyssey. It’s that first morning I was able to walk outside when I realized I probably wasn’t going to die of COVID. The song–and the album–concludes with an acceptance and a final surrender. After lovingly describing “You are languid and lovely and lazy,” Nick, before “oooh”-ing his way out of the song with the piano, sings in a perhaps unintentional reinterpretation of a phrase from Heath Ledger’s Joker: “And what doesn’t kill you just makes you crazier.”
That’s for sure.