What can be gained from loss and love
Yong Shu Hoong listens to Ghosteen by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
By Yong Shu Hoong
"Once there was a song, the song yearned to be sung / It was a spinning song about the king of rock 'n' roll," Australian singer-songwriter and author Nick Cave sings on 'Spinning Song', the opening track of his acclaimed latest album, Ghosteen.
I'm reminded of the first verse of the first chapter in the Bible's Gospel of John: In the beginning was the Word… Has the king now been made aware, too keenly, of his flesh – his mortality – and how much suffering the heart can endure?
"The garden tree was a stairway, it was 16 branches high / On the top branch was a nest, sing the high cloudy nest / In the nest there was a bird, the bird had a wing / The wing had a feather, spin the feather and sing the wind…" The song continues spinning…
It is common knowledge that different people grieve differently. For writers, there is the added advantage of having the ability and platform to convey their grief – or at least come to terms with it – via creative outputs for open airing. Some may think of the flipside, that this might also be a curse when wallowing in sadness can veer a person towards self-destruction and is ultimately far from healing. But I say "advantage" because the truth is, the option of reaching out to an audience with public display of grief is not at everyone's disposal.
So there are "breakup albums" by singer-songwriters mourning their failed relationships: Paste Magazine lists Bruce Springsteen's Tunnel of Love, Lorde's Melodrama and Carole King's Tapestry among its 30 Best Breakup Albums of All Time. I have read a poetry collection Birthday Letters by the late British poet laureate Ted Hughes that attempts to bring closure to the suicide of his first wife, Sylvia Plath. My favourite poet, Jack Gilbert, writes often in his poems about his late wife, sculptor Michiko Nogami, who died of cancer at 36 after 11 years of marriage.
Moving beyond romantic love: American singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens released his 2015 album, Carrie & Lowell, named after his mother, Carrie, and stepfather, Lowell Brams – a masterpiece Pitchfork describes as "a meditation on the grief surrounding his mother's death" from stomach cancer in 2012.
In my home city, we have Singapore-based New Zealander Linda Collins' Loss Adjustment responding to the suicide of her teenage daughter. And we also have poems about dead grandmothers by Singapore poets. The hope is that what had plunged us into despair might also make us better practitioners in our respective crafts, even when no one would wish too much pain upon himself or herself just to come up with a new work of art.
I'm returning to the point of my article: Like Collins, Cave mourns the death of his child. But in the case of the latter, his 15-year-old son Arthur died not of suicide but of an accidental fall from a cliff. As reported in The Guardian, he suffered a fatal brain injury after falling from the Ovingdean Gap in the English seaside town of Brighton on July 14, 2015. An inquest heard testimony from a friend of Arthur who described how on that day they had both taken the hallucinogen LSD for the very first time. Arthur was later seen by witnesses to be staggering across a grassy stretch on the clifftop before falling.
I think I had only vaguely heard about this tragic news around when Skeleton Tree, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' 16th studio album, was released in 2016. At that time, I had mistakenly thought that Skeleton Tree was born from Arthur's death. In fact, he died when the recording sessions were in progress, and by that time, most of the album had already been written (though some lyrics were subsequently amended by Cave to reflect his personal grief). In September the same year, I caught Andrew Dominik's black-and-white documentary film, One More Time With Feeling, at the Projector that not only shed light on the recording of Skeleton Tree but also touched on the effects of Arthur's death on Cave, but even then there was more rumination than factual details in the film, and clarity about the cause of the death was gleaned only upon my subsequent research.
Released in October 2019, Ghosteen is an album more directly tainted by the shadow from Cave's loss of his son. In making this association, I had erroneously derived the connotation of the term "Ghosteen" from its two constituting English words, but apparently the title is an amalgamation of the word "ghost" and the Irish suffix "ín" (anglicised as "een"), which translates as "little" or "benevolent" (Cave himself describes "Ghosteen" as "a migrating spirit"). The sense of loss and grief permeating this album might have another contributing factor: the album is dedicated to Conway Savage, a long-time member of the Bad Seeds who died of a brain tumour in September 2018.
Yet arising from all this surrounding gloom, the album is an epic work of beauty. Departing from his usual practice of writing in a private office, the lyrics were reportedly written at Cave's home in Brighton, prior to moving with his wife and other son Earl to Los Angeles in 2017 (as "the pain of the memories is too much" where he had lived for 15 years). Presumably, the creative process continued: Cave's wife Susie mentioned on her blog The Vampire's Wife that, even as Cave was working on the album in LA, "some of his songs reveal themselves at night in his fever dreams."
From the fairy-tale narrative feel of 'Spinning Song' which by the end of the track shifts gear to a chant-like outro that repeats "I love you" and "peace will come", the album proceeds to the second track 'Bright Horses', where, after the plaintive cries in the introduction, metaphors pile up and then are allowed to fall apart: "And horses are just horses and their manes aren't full of fire / The fields are just fields and there ain't no Lord / And everyone is hidden, and everyone is cruel / And there's no shortage of tyrants and no shortage of fools / And the little white shape dancing at the end of the hall / Is just a wish that time can't dissolve at all."
Reading through Ghosteen's evocative lyrics, written in Cave's distinctive poetic style, it's not immediately clear that the songs are about anyone in particular, or for that matter, death and loss. Is it due to the Christian belief that death is only a temporary separation that, instead of dwelling on futility and dread, he sings, "I'm just waiting for you…" ('Waiting for You') and "my baby's coming home now…" ('Bright Horses'), though I should point out that "baby" could be referring to one's child or a term of affection for a lover – something not made clear in the song.
Now, Christian imagery is not something new in Cave's songwriting. Take for example, his 1994 single, 'Red Right Hand'. This theme song from the BBC TV series, Peaky Blinders, takes its title from the 17th-century English poet John Milton's epic poem 'Paradise Lost', referring to the vengeful hand of God. Another song, 1988's 'The Mercy Seat', references the golden lid of the Ark of the Covenant, which symbolises the throne of God's judgment. So it's no wonder a critic would describe Ghosteen – instead of using the adjective "haunting" which invaded my mind – as "heavenly". Indeed, the ambient mood of the entire album is conjured by sparse electronics, complemented sometimes by light tinkling of the piano, with a dash of spiralling drama provided by choral and orchestral manoeuvres but nothing too over-the-top (like I've said earlier, different people grief differently). I might add that, on the track 'Night Raid', I even hear what sounds like the peace-inducing tolling of church bells.
In Issue #1 dated September 2018 of Cave's email newsletter series entitled The Red Hand Files, a Polish fan heeded the musician's call to ask him anything: "I would love to know how you feel about your writing now" after all that had happened. Cave took care to reply, saying first that, for a year, "it had been difficult to work out how to write, because the centre had collapsed, and Susie and I had been flung to the outer reaches of our lives." He added that what had collapsed was a sense of wonder that creative people, in general, have an acute propensity for and which great trauma can extinguish. "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 practice 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."
It's therefore not a leap in logic to claim that Ghosteen is ultimately brimming with hope, faith and light. In 'Sun Forest', Cave sings: "As a spiral of children climb up to the sun / Waving goodbye to you and goodbye to me / As the past pulls away and the future begins / I say goodbye to all that as the future rolls in / Like a wave, like a wave / And the past, with its savage undertow, lets go." Incidentally, the extended instrumental that prefaces this song would not be out of place in the therapeutic environment of a high-end spa.
Listening to Ghosteen on Spotify, it might be hard to discern that this is actually intended as a double album (his previous double studio album is 2004's Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus). Part I consists of eight songs, which Nick Cave calls "the children", while Part II ("their parents") is made up of two long songs linked by a spoken-word track.
In comparison, Part II seems to wield clearer references to Cave's son or, more generally, the theme of loss, but still one needs to benefit from prior knowledge of the context to read meanings into the lyrics. In the 12-minute title track, he sings, "A Ghosteen dances in my hand / Slowly twirling, twirling all around… / If I could move the night I would / And I would turn the world around if I could / There's nothing wrong with loving something / You can't hold in your hand."
The spoken-word 'Fireflies' starts with the beautiful line: "Jesus lying in his mother's arms / Is a photon released from a dying star." Then the song gets more personal, as the perspective shifts to "we": "We are photons released from a dying star / We are fireflies a child has trapped in a jar / And everything is distant as the stars / I am here and you are where you are."
The lyrics of the 14-min closing track 'Hollywood' deserve analysis. It begins with what sounds like an autobiographical account: "The fires continued through the night / The kid with a bat face appeared at the window then disappeared into the headlights / I was halfway to the Pacific Coast / I had left you in your longing and your yearning like a ghost / There's little room for wonder now, and little room for wildness too / We crawl into our wounds, I'm nearly all the way to Malibu."
In a departure from Christian imagery, the song then makes reference to the Buddhist tale of Kisa Gotami, the wife of a wealthy man in an ancient Indian city, who after losing her only son to illness was mad with sorrow:
Is this the parting advice that Cave is granting us the listeners, to enlighten us that no one is ever free from mortality? The brooding song moves on to the refrain: "Everybody's losing someone… It's a long way to find peace of mind, peace of mind…" And then the album draws to a close with the chorus: "And I'm just waiting now, for my time to come / And I'm just waiting now, for peace to come / For peace to come…"
I'm not sure if peace has come to Cave after the making of Ghosteen, but for me, among the fortunate recipients of this gift of music, poetry and love, it's a moving experience to be infected by Cave's reclaimed sense of wonder. Life, and perhaps death, can never be the same again. And for the even luckier few, we might fully believe that peace will come.QLRS Vol. 19 No. 1 Jan 2020