Like a lot of Nick Cave fans, I could barely wait for the release of Ghosteen, the final album in a trilogy focused on synthesizers, sparse arrangements that become complex upon layering and repetition, and unbelievable loss.
I listened to Ghosteen on the day of its digital release. I waited at least a month for a physical copy to arrive from England. Its fantasy cover promising a biblical hope that one day the lamb and the lion will lie together in peace. By extension, perhaps we will all find peace. Maybe even a unicorn, which seems just as likely.
Having the two records helped solidify something I had felt since first hearing Ghosteen. Even though its emotional resonance has made me cry repeatedly over a few months; even though Cave pushes his voice into registers I didn’t think he could reach; even though creating the music must have required a physical endurance only achievable through a devotion that we can’t help but reserve for the dead. Even though all of these things, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds have done better.
I don’t hesitate when I say that Skeleton Key and Push the Sky Away are better albums.
And there’s one reason that Ghosteen falls short: the band should have split the release into two completely separate albums.
Part 1 of Ghosteen doesn’t contain a bad song. Each has its own lyrical or musical significance. I’m exactly the kind of sucker with enough trust in Cave to believe that “Bright Horses” offers more than symbolism. If Part 1 falls short, it’s only in relation to Cave’s canon. He has written so many great songs that extremely good songs sound so-so in comparison. Compare your least favorite song on Part 1 to the best work of just about any other living songwriter, and you’ll realize that Cave has a work ethic, talent, and devotion to his muse that should embarrass you.
But none of those features makes Ghosteen Part 1 the best album of 2019. The songs feel too familiar. The best album of 2019 cannot sound like the best album of 2016, when NC&TBS released Skeleton Key. There are too many similarities holding it back.
Part 2 deviates so strongly that it deserves its own release. Cave pushes “Ghosteen” beyond the 12-minute mark; provides a brief interlude that I guess you could call spoken word; and returns with “Hollywood” for more than 14 minutes of sustained, marred optimism fueled by the promise of universal pain and death’s eventual relief.
With nearly half an hour of music, Cave could have justified Part 2 as an independent release. And it would have hit unprepared listeners with hard-earned maturity that makes you rethink your role in the world and tells you without reservation that you do not pour enough work into your love.
Part 1 prepped our ears for the sonic and emotional depths of Part 2. I wish it had not.
Kisa knew that her baby was going to die soon. Death rarely gives us that warning. When it does, it only prolongs suffering. Part 1 was like the palliative action of pointlessly visiting the homes of people who have also suffered from loss. I would have preferred the immediate, jarring smack of Part 2’s truth.
I want to say that Cave missed an opportunity. But if I trust that his burning horses are real, I have to also trust that Part 1 and Part 2 exist together for a reason. I have to trust the greater maturity and sensibility of Cave no matter how much I disagree with his decision today.