Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Nick Cave & Warren Ellis Carnage

Destruction runs through the work of Nick Cave. There are howling winds across arid wastelands. There are murder ballads and fiendish criminals. There is addiction and sin. There are souls not so much lost as irreparably shattered, moving through an unforgiving world and negotiating the best they can. He once wrote narrative songs full of perverse deeds and twisted fates. Destruction, in fact, has been one of his greatest topics, whether self-inflicted or biblical or the cruelty people can wreak upon one another. And after 40-odd years of poeticizing death and desolation, he’s finally named an album Carnage.

You could imagine a visceral and abrasive Carnage, released alongside the sputtering, heaving, Gothic works of Cave’s ‘80s; you could imagine a lurid Technicolor Carnage, an aestheticized violence to go with the sickly pinks and reds of Let Love In. But that’s not what Carnage is in Cave’s story. The word appears now, in an elder statesman era full of apocalyptic weight and intimate grief. The word appears now, when death and suffering are casually omnipresent in our lives, when so many carry on desensitized to the body count.

Carnage has the distinction of theoretically introducing a new era for Nick Cave. In the past, he characterized his 2019 double album Ghosteen as the conclusion to a trilogy begun with 2013’s Push The Sky Away. After (mostly) purging the lasciviousness — as well as seemingly any predilection of heavier forms of rock music — from his writing between the Grinderman albums and the psychedelic swagger of Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!, his ’10s work adopted a new sound and a new outlook. Something more allusive, dreamlike-then-unsettling, pivoting toward the atmospheric just as his aging voice could take on more of a prophetic tone. With its airy synthscapes and ruminative piano ballads, Ghosteen seemed the ascension, the final glimmer at the end of a trilogy that grappled with mortality and loss. The latter, of course, also looms large in framing Carnage: After the death of his teenage son Arthur defined Skeleton Tree and Ghosteen, Carnage is the first new album from Cave in almost a decade that could, plausibly, be a collection of songs thematically linked but not as definitively tied to the trauma and grief of his personal life.

There is very little information about Carnage out there right now, but what we do know is that Cave recorded it with his right-hand man Warren Ellis in December, without the rest of the Bad Seeds. The album is credited to just the two of them — making it their first non-soundtrack work as a duo — and was presumably written in lockdown last year. (Prior to the pandemic, Cave had otherwise been planning an extensive tour.) In a recent missive of his Red Hand Files newsletter, Cave answered a fan looking for more details about the album by describing it thus: “Carnage is a brutal but very beautiful record embedded in a communal catastrophe.”

Nick Cave knows brutality well. For large chunks of his career, he trafficked in clangorous, foreboding sounds, albums that relished in the darkest corners of the night. After his contemplative ’10s trilogy, perhaps Carnage would be volcanic Cave resurrected, a noise-blasted purge tapping into a fury he hadn’t quite let loose in some time? Turns out the album isn’t that kind of left turn — it has a different set of stakes than its predecessors, but some themes and images linger, while the music therein is primarily a blend of where Cave was going on Skeleton Tree and Ghosteen.

That means Carnage is more or less divided between songs that have the sinister, staring-into-the-void sound of Skeleton Tree‘s most haunted moments, and the floating, celestial reach for some kind of peace that ran through Ghosteen’s more piano-based material. In each case, Cave and Ellis rely on the synths that have semi-recently become a prominent tool in their arsenal, and often craft songs that are as immersive and lush as when they have the full Bad Seeds behind them.

Opener “Hand Of God” is a striking introduction to the world of Carnage. After a gentle piano feint, Cave intones over a throbbing beat and hissing synths, before yelping the song’s title, wide-eyed, from the backdrop. There and right after, in “Old Time,” Ellis’ otherworldly strings dive and sweep around Cave, making it sound as if the duo are trying to replicate the storms raging in the outside world.

But so much of Carnage otherwise is as stunningly, heartbreakingly beautiful as the most vulnerable moments on the last several Bad Seeds outings. Through its entire second half, the album finds Cave in his most meditative state, reflecting on the connections of love that get us through life’s strangest, hardest passages, or mulling over his own place in the world. “Albuquerque” opens side B with a simple, bare conversation, one lover talking to another about all the far-flung places they won’t see: “And we won’t get to Amsterdam/ Or that lake in Africa, darling/ And we won’t get to anywhere/ Anytime this year, darling,” Cave sings over a twinkling arrangement. It’d be easy, and perhaps glib, to consider it particularly rooted in quarantine, but the scope of it seems wider when placed amongst the album and Cave’s latter-day work overall.

The travels on Carnage, after all, are more metaphysical, or at least symbolic, than they are literal. In “Lavender Fields,” he talks about people asking him how he’s changed. The song’s string figure and lone trumpet approach a hymnal, as Cave sings of journeys beyond our surroundings and into something else, in the sky. Afterwards — on “Shattered Ground,” perhaps the album’s most quietly crushing song — hazy, ambient synths make Cave sound as if he’s singing from the heavens. He says “goodbye” over and over while making his love cosmic: “The moon is a girl with the sun in her eyes.”

Carnage is brutal in a spiritual sense more than a stylistic one, approaching these moments of elemental beauty only after traversing rocky ground. After the harrowing pairing of “Hand Of God” and “Old Time,” the album soon reaches “White Elephant,” its most shocking and complex moment, blowing open the middle of Carnage. The rhythm in its first half lumbers and prowls like a predator surveying its prey. It’s a rare moment in recent years, with Cave reclaiming some trace of the nastiness that used to run amok in his music.

He needed to go back to that place for this character. The song begins from the perspective of a white hunter sitting on his porch who later promises he’ll “shoot you in the fucking face for free,” while proclaiming, “The president has called in the Feds/ I’ve been planning this for years.” The song’s second verse is, to put it lightly, loaded: 

A protester kneels on the neck of a statue
The statue says I can’t breathe
The protester says now you know how it feels
And kicks it into the sea

Maybe that’s Cave’s way of illustrating the narrator’s perspective, or maybe it’s his way of depicting an overdue vengeance against the powers that be. But from the name “White Elephant” on down, it’s an unusually topical turn from Cave, a vicious bleeding wound sitting at the core of the album and its most direct evocation of one form of “carnage” we’ve all witnessed in the recent past. The same as in the US, Cave’s adopted UK homeland has seen its share of disastrously cynical leadership, making a government’s general disregard, or outright disdain, for its populace more blatant than at most points in our lives. Cave doesn’t need his old brand of brutality, his maniacal characters or personas. In the uncommon instance where he’s chosen to write rather explicitly about current events, he’s got plenty to draw upon from the real world.

Throughout Carnage, there are grasps at some kind of escape, particularly the idea of grabbing those closest to you and running away from it all. “I’m throwing my bags in the back of the car/ Just like the old times/ Wherever you are, darling, I’m not far behind,” he sings in “Old Time.” “Shattered Ground” echoes the sentiment, with that moon-who-is-a-girl once more throwing her bags in the back of the car. “And there’s a madness in her and a madness in me/ And together it forms a kind of sanity,” Cave adds. “We bought a house in the country/ Where we could lose our minds.” There are dreams of Albuquerque, Amsterdam, that lake in Africa.

Whether you want to view these as continuations of scenes glimpsed on Ghosteen — Cave, or his narrator, and a partner, alone but together no matter what else the world throws at them — or a relatable impulse to, after the last several years, shut out the rest of society just to keep yourself level, these are urges that exist here on Earth. Elsewhere, escape takes more abstract forms. Absolution or oblivion in rivers and bodies of water. In “Lavender Fields,” Cave’s long sojourn uphill includes this: “I plow through this furious world/ Of which I’m truly over.” It’s an eerie echo of him singing about “waiting for my time to come” on various songs on Ghosteen, a sense that the suffering in this world has become so heavy one can only hope for a very final form of release.

“There is a kingdom in the sky.” That image appears, in various forms and from different angles, all across Carnage. It is almost frightening when “Hand Of God” hints at an unloving creator. It means something else when it’s the end destination — or, rather, the end hope — of the road in “Lavender Fields.” It’s the refrain in Carnage‘s most bizarre, unexpected, and unshakable turn: When the lurch of “White Elephant” suddenly ruptures into a transporting proclamation that “A time is coming/ A time is nigh/ For the kingdom in the sky/ We’re all coming home/ In a while.” Like the rest of the song, and how these words modulate across Carnage, the meaning is slippery. It could be perceived as a choral repudiation of the warped evil of that white hunter, or it could be that same narrator giddily bringing on the rapture to cleanse the world, as he sees it.

Like destruction, religion runs through the work of Cave. The kingdom in the sky could well be a reckoning of faith as he grows older, but images of salvation can just as easily manifest in the smallest moments of grace. To the extent that there are any conclusions — ever, but especially in Cave’s work since the loss of his son — it seems to be that he’s grown ever more elusive and searching in his writing, yet always returning to the simple magic of those close to us. If there’s a way Carnage differs from the ’10s trilogy, it’s that it emanates from and arrives in a shaken world where, perhaps, Cave is making that statement a broader reminder of a core humanity even in the face of the bleakest of times.

So that’s the solace he returns to, again and again, on Carnage. While the world has fallen apart, there’s the fragile hope of surviving it all with someone by your side. “Carnage,” the counterintuitive title track, is wintry and calm, Cave singing about love coming around — like a train down the mountain, in the rain. But as the album goes on, the images of more quotidian transcendence pop up more and more, from those repeated yearnings of getting in a car and disappearing, to looking into another person and seeing a whole ocean or moon to embrace, to the album’s final refrain: “This morning is amazing and so are you.”

“What doesn’t kill you just makes you crazier,” Cave sings in the album closer “Balcony Man,” the parting words of Carnage. This is where carnage has appeared. This is who Cave has become as an aging artist. No matter how loud the destruction is around us, he hasn’t returned to the armageddons of his past. Instead, he now depicts the insidious ways in which ruin visits our lives, and how it sticks with us. He talks of a carnage that leaves literal dead in its wake, but also minds broken by the madness around them. In the past, when Cave told stories, they could often end there, at the moment of collapse. For all the prayers, his art was not hopeful. But now, maybe this is how he’s changed: He still wades through destruction, but tries to reassure himself, and us, that there are fragments of redemption to be found, and to be held tight.

Joel Ryan

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