I am not emotionally prepared to talk about Nick Cave’s Ghosteen.
As a way of easing into it, I will say this. Every year I hope that there will be some kind of fourth-quarter miracle, an album that arrives late in the year and surprises me, rewriting my top 10 list in the process. I hope for this even in great years, because I love to be blindsided by brilliant music. This hasn’t been a great year, but it’s been a good one, and I would have had a perfectly respectable end-of-the-year summary even if nothing worthy happened to arrive between now and year’s end.
But here is Ghosteen, and after only a couple spins, I cannot imagine I would write a 2019 top 10 list without it. It’s a harrowing masterpiece, the kind of record spoken about in hushed whispers. I feel like it’s already revered in certain corners, already being evangelized as an extraordinarily moving experience unlike anything else this year, and it deserves every accolade it’s getting. If one of the year’s more celebrated releases can be considered underrated, though, I think Ghosteen might be.
And if it is, it’s because this is a difficult album to listen to, despite how absolutely gorgeous it is. In 2015, Cave’s teenage son Arthur fell to his death, and this entire record is about that loss. I need to gird myself before listening, because I know once the ethereal synths of “Spinning Song” begin, I will be in for the long haul, and these 68 minutes are almost impossibly heart-wrenching. I will not be able to summarize or encapsulate the grief that pours out of this thing, nor should I be able to. That grief feels larger than the known universe, heavier than the weight of the world. It’s too big for Cave to even process in these 11 songs – he picks at it until it bleeds, but he cannot find his way over it.
It’s almost as if he knew going in that he would not be able to even name this grief, let alone shape it here. Cave is a born storyteller – his career has found him relating myths and tales from various traditions, giving them new resonance. “Spinning Song” begins with a fairy tale about Elvis, one that collapses before our ears, as if to say that even stories will not heal this pain. He ends this song not with a lesson, but with a mantra, one that he repeats throughout Ghosteen: “Peace will come in time.” But it will not come easy.
From here Cave uses metaphors – a returning train, Jesus (who makes several appearances here) – to symbolize Cave’s overpowering loss and his yearning for a reunion with his son. Much of the language here, though, is remarkably straightforward, and even when Cave is describing a vision of children climbing up to the sun, as he does on the glorious “Sun Forest,” his voice shakes with emotion. This is an album screaming for connection, for simple human understanding, and even though it is richly layered, it feels stark and bare. Drums are only used sparingly – the sound is mainly conjured with airy synths and chiming guitars, filling the higher spaces above Cave’s baritone voice.
For most of this album, Cave describes his efforts to be with his son again, in his mind. “Galleon Ship” is about searching for the other side, sailing into the unknown. (The choral arrangement here is so beautiful.) One track later is “Ghosteen Speaks,” and I can’t hear this any other way than as Arthur Cave (the ghost teen) speaking to his father. “I am beside you, look for me, I am within you, you are within me…” These songs feel like dreams, like rowing out onto some imagined, endless sea, feeling helpless and alone, and if that isn’t a metaphor for grief, I don’t know what is.
Ghosteen is divided into two halves, and Cave has described the first half (eight short songs) as the children and the second half (two long songs and a spoken word piece) as their parents. It’s an interesting way to put it, especially on an album about a father and his lost son, but it’s apt. The lengthier pieces on the second disc use much of the same imagery as the songs on disc one, but they add context and depth. The title track describes the little ghost, dancing in Cave’s hand then flitting off, and he concludes that “there’s nothing wrong with loving something you can’t hold in your hand.” It’s 50/50 whether I cry whenever he sings this line. The music here is sweeping and grand, contrasting with the tiny pulsing nugget of grief at the song’s center.
“Fireflies,” the connecting piece, is similarly emotionally raw: “We are photons released from a dying star, we are fireflies a child has trapped in a jar, and everything is as distant as the stars, I am here and you are where you are…” This piece uses the vastness of the universe as a way of expressing the enormity of loss, the way that the separation of death feels like unimaginable distance. “A star is just the memory of a star,” Cave says, and it’s true: the light we see is millions of years old, and the stars that generated it may not even exist anymore, and certainly are not where we see them.
It’s powerful stuff, and nothing here is more powerful than “Hollywood,” the 14-minute closing track. This one catches Cave on a long drive, still waiting for the peace he longed for in the first song. He speaks to his son: “Your dreams were your greatest part, I carry them in my heart.” Cave has rarely been as direct as he is here, giving us a scene from his own life, and it’s like reading his diary. It’s almost a relief when he decides to end this record with a tale, a story drawn from the Buddhist tradition – it’s as if he searched the entire album for a story like this one to tell, to comfort himself.
The story is of a woman named Kisa Gotami, whose child grows deathly ill. She visits the Buddha, who tells her that he can heal her child if she brings him a mustard seed. But she must obtain this seed from a home in which no one has died. She asks at every home in the village, but cannot find one that has not been touched by death. And so her child dies. “Everybody’s losing someone,” Cave sums up, and ends the album where it began: “I’m just waiting now for peace to come.”
And I’m hollowed out. It’s the most devastating conclusion – grief is universal, everyone has experienced death and loss, and that is the only comfort. We can wait for our loved ones to return, we can steer that galleon ship into the sun looking for them, but it won’t bring them back. All we can do is ride it through and wait for peace of mind. I cannot imagine what a difficult lesson this has been for Cave to learn. Just the sliver of emotion he lets through on this album is enough to do me in.
And look, this is all dancing about architecture. I’m describing a musical depiction of grief, and not even coming close to giving you an idea what it is like to hear this album, to take it in and sit with it. It’s an incredibly difficult and soul-enriching experience. I don’t know that I would wish it on anyone, but if you believe that music can connect us even in our darkest places, this album will prove it. We’ll be talking about Ghosteen again in a few weeks, when 2019 draws to a close. It’s an extraordinary thing, an album I wish Cave never had the inspiration to make, but one that towers over much of what I have heard this year. It hurts, and it leaves you hurting, and it’s beautiful.
Next week, the 2019 WTF Awards. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.