Album Review: Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds - Ghosteen

In the fall of 2016, Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds were preparing to release both an album—Skeleton Tree, as well as a companion documentary about the album’s creation and recording—One More Time With Feeling.

I hadn’t thought about it for a long time, but there was a trailer released for the film that features Cave saying what is, without a doubt, one of the most profound things I’ve ever heard—

Most of us don’t want to change, really. I mean, why should we? What we do want is sort of modifications on the original model. We keep on being ourselves, but just hopefully better versions of ourselves. But what happens when an event occurs that is so catastrophic, that you just change? You change from the known person to an unknown person.

So that when you look at yourself in the mirror, do you recognize the person that you were, but the person inside the skin is a different person?

Skeleton Tree, as an album, is a relatively minimal and reserved sounding rumination grief1—specifically, the grief that came after the sudden death of one of his teenage sons. One More Time With Feeling, as a film, shows Cave and his family attempting to process that grief as best they can, all while he tries to work that grief into the music he and The Bad Seeds were in the studio creating.

We all process grief differently.

Some of us (e.g. me) may never process it in a healthy way at all, and stay partially, if not completely, stuck in it. A number of months ago, a friend of mine2 shared something related3 to self-help and self-care as an Instagram story—if I recall correctly, it was about the idea of joy and grief coexisting. It was late at night when I saw the post, and I responded to it, telling her the idea of those two emotions, or states of being, coexisting, was wild.

She agreed that yes, it is wild, but that it is a thing that is possible.

I said I didn’t know how one could accept both, and that I wasn’t sure if I was allowing myself to really feel ‘joy.’

She asked why I felt that way, but we never finished this conversation—it was late, and, at the time, I told her this was more of something we should talk about in person, rather than in Instagram DMs when both of us, more than likely, should be getting to sleep


Even after the devastating, beautiful catharsis of Skeleton Tree, Cave is still working through his grief, or is perhaps still stuck in it—and that sets the stage for the Ghosteen, released as somewhat of a surprise with little notice; an ambitious, alarmingly minimal, synth heavy, and absolutely haunting double album that is split between a set of eight songs, and an additional three more experimental, freely formed pieces—two of which are quite sprawling in their length.

When the album rollout began, Cave stated the material from the first half of the album could be looked at as ‘the children’; the material from the second half are ‘the parents.’

Announced via Cave’s fan correspondence website The Red Hand Files, Ghosteen was revealed a week later via a ‘world premiere’ live stream, then made available digitally immediately afterword. I downloaded the album without hesitation, but after an initial, albeit not very focused listen, I realized that even in its minimalistic, sparse nature, it was an incredibly heavy record, weighed down by tremendous sadness and grief—after that, I found myself borderline afraid to return to it because it simply seemed to intimidating—like it was just too much.

Like working through grief, or any kind of emotion, or coming to terms with your own mortality—or the mortality of a loved one—Ghosteen, while so very daunting at times, is not something you shouldn’t be afraid of, but it’s an album that does require you to proceed with caution—and more than caution, it requires you to have a seemingly endless well of patience.

It’s gorgeous, and at times wildly heartbreaking as Cave, once again, proves himself to be masterful at evoking staggering emotions. Across the first part’s eight tracks, it works less as an ‘album,’ and more as an atmosphere that has been meticulously crafted. Building a slow burning, warm sonic landscape structured around mournful piano and myriad synthesizers, there are moments when, if you aren’t paying very close attention, it’s difficult to tell exactly where one track may end, and the next begins.

But I think the point—Cave and his band (more than just he and Warren Ellis are in there somewhere, underneath all those synthesizers) have made something that pulls you down into his grief and hurt; if he is stuck in it, you are now stuck in it with him.


There is an arresting, somber beauty in nearly every track on the first portion of Ghosteen. Long gone are the days of Cave and The Bad Seeds balancing the unpredictable and volatile with slow burning balladry—Cave has been turning things inward, sonically speaking, since the beginning of 2013, with the first in an alleged trilogy of albums, Push The Sky Away—which found the band exploring very restrained territory that created palpable tension, but little, if any, release.

Even in the album’s very moody opening track, “Spinning Song,” there is beauty somewhere within those dated sounding synthesizers and Cave singing in a surprisingly high register—and managing to pull it off. But the really tangible beauty begins almost immediately as you hear the opening piano notes of “Bright Horses,” beginning a near flawless run of four songs, through “Waiting For You,” into “Night Raid,” and concluding with “Sun Forest”—each of them breathtaking in their arrangement and performance; each of them able to leave you an absolute emotional wreck thanks in part to the focus being on the still charismatic, even when sullen, and theatricality of Cave’s iconic voice.

There are moments, especially in that run of four songs, that Ghosteen can be very reminiscent of one of Cave’s best records—1997’s The Boatman’s Call, which was, at the time, quite a contrast from the drama, bombast, and angst coursing through the earliest Bad Seed records, and into records like Murder Ballads and Let Love In. The Boatman’s Call is one of Cave, and The Bad Seeds’ earliest exercises in restraint—keeping the music, and the mood it creates, at a simmer, but never boiling over. There is familiar imagery, too, throughout Ghosteen, that refer back to The Boatman’s Call and Skeleton Tree as well—specifically, and surprisingly, religious imagery.

Early on, there’s is part where “Bright Horses” swells—both with Cave’s strong, deep voice, resonating through, as well as the lush instrumentation including a warm, eerie synthesizer, piano, strings, and vibraphone—“And I’m by your side, and I’m holding your hand,” Cave sings, and in that moment, especially with this line, the song becomes almost too much. There’s just something incredibly truthful, and more importantly, incredibly human about the way he delivers that lyric, and it’s this moment, within this song, that made me a believer in this record; a believer in the power that this record has.

Opening with a ramshackle, broken down sounding drum machine, trudging along, “Waiting For You,” a song that leans very heavily on Cave’s penchant for theatricality with his vocal range and abilities, is perhaps most similar in sound and structure to the material from The Boatman’s Call, especially with the control and gusto he uses to deliver the song’s titular phrase throughout the refrain, as the rolling piano chords tumble down around him, all while blurring the lines of what the song is about—there’s enough ambiguity coating the song’s verses that leave it open to a number of interpretations, or possibly the convergence of two different meanings, which makes it all the more compelling, and emotionally draining, of a listen.

The pensive, glitchy “Night Raid” is perhaps the album’s most evocative in its use of fragments and imagery—arriving at the halfway point of the album’s first section. Structurally, it shares a lot with some of the moodiest and atmospheric moments on Skeleton Tree, as far as its borderline stream of consciousness delivery, and the dream-like state conjured so effortlessly by the minimal instrumentation. “You were a runaway flake of snow,” Cave states, not even so much singing it as ‘talk singing’ the line. “You were skinny and white as a wafer—yeah, I know. Sitting on the edge of the bed, clicking your shoes. I slid my little songs out from under you.”

“Sun Forest” effectively begins the second half of Ghosteen’s first section; it’s also this section’s longest piece, arriving at nearly seven minutes, complete with a very gradual introduction, spread across the song’s first two minutes, in an effort to construct a specific atmosphere. “Sun Forest,” after things begin to swell to an emotional breaking point of swirling voices and instrumentation, also indicates a somewhat dramatic switch in tone for the rest of the this portion of the album.

Sometimes, when I think about grief, and allowing it to, if at all possible, coexist with another emotional state, I think about this quote from an episode of “The Wire.”

It happens in the show’s fifth season4, and it comes from the arc of the show’s only truly redemptive character, Bubbles, the loveable drug addict—who, by season five, is clean, and attempting to make peace with himself for the accidental overdose that took the life of his friend.

Ain’t no shame in holdin’ on to grief,” he says, addressing a room full of other former addicts. “As long as you make room for other things too.”

I stop short of saying the latter half of Ghosteen’s first part is ‘hopeful,’ and it certainly isn’t joyful by any means, but there is a very noticeable change following the conclusion of “Sun Forest,” and into the final three tracks. There’s a feeling of bittersweet longing in the way “Galleon Ship”’s instrumentation twinkles and swirls like snow falling slowly from a dark, winter sky; there’s still enough dissonance layered in though, with the strange vocal looping, and the bending of the synthesizer’s pitches, but once that dissonance resolves, there’s a small sense of something else—something a little less ominous and daunting.

I don’t want to Ghosteen’s first half loses its energy along with this change in tone, but the final two pieces of this portion of the record, “Ghosteen Speaks,” and “Leviathan,” are among the weakest of this set of eight—both musically, and lyrically. There’s something very primal (though reserved) about “Leviathan,” while “Ghosteen Speaks” connects itself back to the overall conceit of the record. A ‘ghosteen,’ is, allegedly a ‘small ghost’—the ‘een’ is an Anglicized way of saying the Irish suffix, ‘in,’ which translates to ‘little’ or ‘benevolent.’ Musically, there’s just enough mournful discord to make it less palatable, especially with it arriving after so many densely arranged but gorgeous tracks.


I don’t think any Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds records are particularly ‘easy’ to get into; you could say that some present a little less of a challenge than others when it comes to their accessibility—Ghosteen, and it should come as no surprise, is probably the band’s most challenging album to date, both because of its unconventional arranging, as well as its structure—eight songs in one part, then an additional three on a second, with two of those subsequent tracks running between 12 and 14 minutes in length. There’s a very loose, borderline improvisational feeling to these longer pieces, but they are much too bombastic, and too tight in their arranging and momentum to truly be as ‘free’ as they may originally appear.

Looking at them as, say, ‘modern classical’ music, a piece like the titular track, which opens the second portion of the record, works in specific movements throughout its 12 minute running time.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that these lengthy experiments work, exactly, or 100% successful in their execution. After a somewhat extended introduction, “Ghosteen” eventually lifts off with a surprising amount of grandeur and bombast, including percussion—really the first time it appears on the record, as well as an impressive, and dizzying orchestral accompaniment; the piece, however, then shifts a little after the six-minute mark as Cave pulls the song back inward, relying on his own voice and a warm, antiquated sounding synthesizer, riding that out until the track concludes.

“Hollywood” is the second experimental, lengthy composition included on Ghosteen’s back half, and in comparison, it’s much more palatable than its predecessor. Structured around a very unnerving, glitchy bass loop, Cave alternates between reading what seems like a spoken word poem full of dark imagery and actually singing, while additional instrumentation from an array of synthesizers and piano oscillate around him. It’s a little easier of an ask, for some reason, to be patient with “Hollywood”—it surprisingly moves along a little more interesting, and a little faster of a pace.

These two tracks are split up by one short, spoken word piece, “Fireflies.” Set against the backdrop of eerie string screeches and ominous piano tinkling, outside of his work as a singer and songwriter with The Bad Seeds, Cave is an author—with two very old collections of writings and poetry to his name, as well as two novels.  The way with which he delivers the poetry of “Fireflies” is stark, making it one of most compelling things on either portion of Ghosteen, full of contrasting imagery that references both Christianity and science, and it is perhaps one of the album’s earliest attempts at Cave easing back into songwriting after the death of his son.

In the first of his Red Right Hand Files, he states that he ‘found away to write beyond the trauma, authentically, that deals with all manner of issues but does not turn its back on the issue’ of his son’s death.

I found with some practice the imagination could propel itself beyond the personal into a state of wonder,” he continued.

This information adds incredible emotional weight to an already heavy, albeit concise, piece—
And we lie among our atoms and I speak to you of things
And hope sometimes that maybe you will understand
There is no order here and there is no middle ground
Nothing can be predicted and nothing can be planned
A star is just a memory of a star
We are fireflies pulsing dimly in the dark
We are here and you are where you are
We are here and you are where you are


Ghosteen is, if you hadn’t already surmised this far into a piece on it, a difficult album—it’s minimal in sound, yes, but that makes it incredibly dense and complicated, allowing few, if any at all, easy points of access. Using the word ‘ambitious’ to describe it doesn’t seem correct, since that implies something about the size of its scope; however, even in all its tension and restraint, it’s a hugely ambitious undertaking, especially this late into Cave’s career—the 17th studio album from Cave and The Bad Seeds, arriving over 45 years after the formation of Cave’s first, short lived band, The Birthday Party.

There were no easy answers provided as the music faded out on “Skeleton Tree,” the closing track on Cave’s album of the same name—the first that ruminated on his grief. The lyric “And it’s alright, now,” is the last thing you hear, and at the time it provided the listener with a minor glimmer of hope, or possibly acceptance—though, perhaps, it was a false sense of it.

The final lines of “Hollywood”—their intended hopefulness or optimism—are a little harder to get a read on:

Everybody’s losing someone
It’s a long way to find peace of mind
And I’m just waiting now, for my time to come
And I’m just waiting now, for peace to come

I may never finish that conversation with my friend about the coexistence of grief and joy; and I may never fully understand how to make room for something else, other than grief, which I have been carrying around with me for so long, and in so many different forms. If anything, Ghosteen shows that if you are stuck in the grieving process, you aren’t alone. Prior to the sessions for Ghosteen, Cave had very deliberately not written anything for over a year, and changed his process entirely for writing as to get out of his own head, only to find his way back in, and try to make something out of what he has been trapped in.

An absolute challenge to comprehend at times, Ghosteen is full of moments of flickering beauty that linger alongside a tragic impetus that haunts long after you’ve stopped listening. 

1- Allegedly, according to the Wikipedia entry for Ghosteen, a bulk of the lyrics to Skeleton Tree had been completed prior to the death of Cave’s son, and he only went back to alter a few things here and there as a response to the tragedy he found himself in. Even if this is true, the album’s fragility and preoccupation with mortality is startling, in light of Cave’s grief.

2- Shout out to my friend Andrea.

3- Since this was an Instagram story from many, many weeks ago, it is long gone, and I do not recall where the post she shared originated from, but I’ve found, just from a few people that I follow, there are myriad self-help/self-care accounts out there.

4- Arguably the show’s weakest season, perhaps in part to the focus on the journalistic integrity of the newsroom, or perhaps due to the absurdity of the situation that Jimmy McNulty, one of the show’s anti-heroes, finds himself in.

Ghosteen is out now as a digital download, and will be available on vinyl and CD on November 8th, via Cave's own Bad Seeds LTD imprint.