The sound of overwhelming loss.
The single most difficult decision of this entire project was where to position Ghosteen. From the moment I first heard it, it’s place on this list was never in doubt. My problem is that it’s still only sixty-seven days old and I need much more time. Not to decide whether it’s good or not. That’s evident. But how good? That is the question.
In deciding that, I find that I really, really need much more time to let it seep into the consciousness. For me, it takes at least six months to make a strong call on where a body of work sits in comparison to others. So, I find myself with a buttfull of splinters as a result of sitting on the fence and sticking Ghosteen bang in the middle of the list. I have played safe. I know that The Bad Seeds would be disappointed in my conservatism. But we are where we are. So, what about it?
Musically, magnificent as it is, it’s not as much of a surprise as I think many people felt upon first listen. The Bad Seeds, directed by Cave and Warren Ellis of course, started moving in this direction with Push the Sky Away and accelerated with Skeleton Key. Ghosteen’s sparser, more ambient sound with swirling moogs and hypnotic loops was clearly signposted. What could not be predicted, of course, is the lyrical content and the overall mood. Clearly, the tragic death of his son, Arthur, in 2015 has altered what Cave writes about. Unsurprisingly, those events govern this album.
On Ghosteen there are frequent references to spirits dancing in the half life and shapes dancing at the end of the world. It’s obvious what, or who, he is referring to. The songs are beautifully crafted, with frequent references to metaphorical horses with manes of fire and children ascending staircases that are made of a queen’s hair and stretch all the way to the sun. It’s very ethereal, very otherworldly. It’s like some kind of beautiful fantasy or fairytale.
Which leads us to the artwork on the cover. It is a vividly striking impression of paradise with horses and flamingos illuminated by shafts of sunlight. It is gorgeous and fits with the music perfectly.
It is an incredibly sad album. The weight of that sadness makes it a difficult listen at times. But then, Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds have never been an easy listen.
In time I may decide that Ghosteen is the best album of all time. Maybe not. But I’m certain, fresh as it is, that it is worthy of inclusion on this list.