Over three decades, the Australian musician Nick Cave has turned out a genre-spanning body of work, from the snarling hellfire in the goth-punk of his early years to the piano ballads and gospel-inflected romps of the early 2000s, and then the ambient, ethereal soundscapes that have characterized his last three albums. Yet whatever the style, Cave’s music takes on the most elemental aspects of human life—love, grief, sex, death, sin, redemption—plumbing the depths of our worst impulses and reaching up to explore our best. Cave says that his songs are expressions of a longing for love and healing, for an encounter with God. In the end, his songs are “all the same thing—lifelines thrown into the galaxies of the divine by a drowning man.”
In July 2015, Cave’s teenage son Arthur died suddenly in an accident while the singer and his band, the Bad Seeds, were recording the album Skeleton Tree. Cave quickly wrapped up work on the record and retreated from the spotlight, insisting on his family’s privacy. Only after three years did Cave complete a new album: Ghosteen, released in October 2019. It seems to be the lifeline Cave tossed out amid his grief. He takes up his familiar preoccupations of love, loss, and death, but with a tenderness that makes it sound desperately personal. If writing these songs of yearning is, as Cave has written, “the light of God, deep down, blasting up through our wounds,” Cave is tearing himself wide open to let it pour out.
Ghosteen is clearly his most personal exploration of death, but the probing of wounds is not new territory for Cave. His songs have always been dark, bloodstained and sometimes apocalyptic in their menace, yet limned with mercy for the broken, sidelined sinners he sings about. Cave’s work is famous for its pervasive Christian imagery, and if generally unorthodox it nonetheless points to something true: the sin and perversion that can exist in the human heart, but also the plentiful grace of a broken world.
Take “The Mercy Seat” from the 1988 album Tender Prey, in which a convicted murderer is led to the electric chair. In his final moments he conflates the chair with the Ark of the Covenant, the manger, and the cross of Christ; he yearns for a time when there will be no more “weighing of the truth” and he will cease to be judged by the rule of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” He waits instead for the “ragged stranger” Christ, hanging in death with him. Or “God Is in the House,” a piano ballad from 2001’s No More Shall We Part. The narrator mocks a conventionally respectable Christian town where “there is no place for crime to hide.” Instead, “At night we’re on our knees / As quiet as a mouse / For God is in the house.” The townspeople have deficient imaginations, and their concern for propriety makes them blind to the wounds of “the tipsy, the reeling, and the drop down pissed” with whom Jesus associated. God is in the house, but “I wish he would come out,” Cave sings.
Many of Cave’s older songs are similarly narrative in form, sounding almost like folktales. One of the best known, a duet with pop star Kylie Minogue, is “Where the Wild Roses Grow,” which tells the story of a man pursuing a woman only to kill her because, as he sings, “all beauty must die.” In “DIG!!! LAZARUS DIG!!!” a freshly resurrected Lazarus wanders today’s world followed by paparazzi, unsure of what to do with his new life as he descends into sin and madness. “Larry grew increasingly neurotic and obscene / He never asked to be raised up from the tomb!.... He ended up like so many of them do / Back in the streets of New York City / In a soup queue, a dope fiend, a slave / Then prison, then the madhouse, then the grave / Oh poor Larry!”