Nick Cave and Warren Ellis Find Beauty Amid Today's 'Carnage'

BY Matt BobkinPublished Feb 25, 2021

Nick Cave is sounding restless again. The legendary Australian musician had been sounding uncharacteristically pensive and reflective since kicking off a late-career renaissance with 2013's ominously baroque Push the Sky Away, leading to some of the best albums of his career. But, even at his most placid, it sounded like Cave still had the power to leap out of listeners' headphones and bellow in their faces — he was just choosing not to, as on 2016's sparse, ambient Skeleton Tree and 2019's mournful, ornate Ghosteen.

Now, it appears he's been forced to. Following months of mandatory, pandemic-induced downtime, Cave took a week-long studio sojourn with longtime Bad Seed and frequent film score collaborator Warren Ellis, where the duo spat out Carnage, eight gnarled tracks driven by an almost compulsive, desperate need to create, as if the musicians themselves would burst if they couldn't get their ideas onto tape. (Similar to its hurried creation, the pair delivered the album as a surprise release.) Carnage hardly sounds rushed, though; Cave's vocals and Ellis' instrumentals — particularly in his work with Dirty Three — have always had raw, naturalistic qualities, and they're presented here in an honest, authentic way.

You can practically hear the pent-up tension in Cave's voice and Ellis' instruments after being sidelined for so long. As Cave sings in opening track "Hand of God," "I'm going to the river where the current rushes by / I'm gonna swim to the middle where the water is real high." Ominous falsettos yelp the titular phrase over and over again, and Ellis' violin screeches above. "Old Time" has Cave returning to his grizzled Grinderman snarl, augmented by plonking keys, synth bass, warbling violins and roaring electric guitars — a fun and fresh way to revisit the Bad Seeds' high-octane recordings of old.

But, by and large, Carnage succeeds when it opts for beauty over devastation. Though Cave is still able to sell the confrontational, murderous rage of his 1996 adaptation of folk song "Stagger Lee" in live shows, a similar attempt to convey menacing spoken word here on "White Elephant" falls flat. He oscillates between incisive, topical commentary ("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 he kicks it into the sea"), bizarre word vomit ("I am a Botticelli Venus with a penis / Riding an enormous scalloped fan") and limp musings like an AI trained on hours of Fox News ("The president has called in the Feds / I've been planning this for years / I'll shoot you in the fucking face"), before the whole ordeal is miraculously salvaged with a jubilant, Spiritualized-sized orchestral finale. Closer "Balcony Man" is similarly styled — the latter's refrain of "This morning is amazing and so are you" is so earnestly heartening, with instrumentation to match, it's enough to forgive attempts to rhyme "tap dancing shoes" with "lap dancing shoes" and extended references to Fred Astaire (which, of course, he rhymes with "stairs").

Carnage's best moments occur when Cave and Ellis give in to peace and warmth. The late-album stretch of "Albuquerque," "Lavender Fields" and "Shattered Ground" soars with magisterial pianos and strings, Cave channeling the operatic delicateness of Ghosteen without the compositional sprawl that bogged down the record. It's not to ignore the hard times, but to listen to and learn from them. "I am travelling appallingly alone / On a singular road," Cave sings on "Lavender Fields." And later, "People ask me how I've changed / I say it is a singular road." Carnage is proof enough that it's true. And on "Shattered Ground," he finds balance between madness and peace: "I don't care what they are saying / They can scream their fucking faces blue again / I will be all alone when you are gone." 

Carnage covers broader range than most of the Bad Seeds' recent records, cramming plenty of Cave's various stylings into a neat, eight-song package. For all of Cave's hunger and glee to return to the foreboding sounds of his past, it's when he opts for pure catharsis and bliss that he album achieves its full power.
(Goliath Records)

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