In October of 2019, I had the pleasure of asking Nick Cave a question at one of his “Conversation” shows, a sold out affair in New Westminster B.C. The question itself was something I instinctually wanted to know in my Bad Seeds fanaticism: “You’ve talked about your stylistic shift musically over the past few albums, due in large part to your close collaboration with Warren Ellis. I wanted to know whether you think you could’ve made the same music with previous collaborators, like [the Birthday Party guitarist] Roland S. Howard, or Blixa Bargeld and Mick Harvey [both founding Bad Seeds members].”
For the unfamiliar, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds are goth rock royalty, churning out heavy tunes with a bluesy and gospel tinge for decades. The second name on CARNAGE, Warren Ellis, is a violinist originally from The Dirty Three, who had guested on Cave’s seminal records Let Love In and Murder Ballads prior to formally joining the Bad Seeds for The Boatman’s Call. As Cave’s prior collaborators drew back from the Bad Seeds, his work with Ellis grew. After Blixa Bargeld left in 2003, Ellis stepped up to help lead the writing sessions for Abbotoir Blues & The Lyre of Orpheus. Then came Grinderman, a Bad Seeds offshoot showcasing all of Warren’s talents. Following the departure of Mick Harvey from the Bad Seeds in 2008, Cave’s music shifted in the way I referred to in my question to the artist; there were suddenly loops and atmospheric synths, and the songs took on new shapes and forms. The wizard behind most of that? Warren Ellis.
In collaborating with Ellis, Cave’s music has grown more atmospheric and non-linear (arguably beginning with the impeccable Grinderman 2 in 2010). This led to a trilogy of albums, starting with 2013’s Push the Sky Away. Suddenly, Grinderman’s noisy loops were replaced with mysterious, painterly brush strokes of melody or thundering bass grooves, weaving loose rhythms in nonlinear songs. Gone were the characters of the past in favour of Cave’s poetic deliberations and hushed voice. However, his roaring yells would return where the songs called for it. And once this album brought Cave to new heights, tragedy came crashing into his world. The loss of his son sent Cave on a profound grief path. The music that resulted on 2016’s Skeleton Tree was cold, mysterious, and beautiful, with songs written prior to his son’s passing, but ultimately completed afterward. Then, 2019’s Ghosteen came, bringing a needed sense of hope to the trilogy. The double album was nearly entirely composed of strings, piano and synthesizers in the most glistening atmospheric arrangements, with nonlinear songs reigning supreme and a notable absence of volume. It showcased his new poetic language set against the compositional and arranging mastery of Warren Ellis; and this was Cave’s biggest musical metamorphosis since his shift into full time balladeering on 1997’s The Boatman’s Call.
On January 7, Nick told a fan on his Red Hand Files platform that he made a record called CARNAGE. On February 5, he elaborated that the album “...is a brutal but very beautiful record embedded in a communal catastrophe.” Last November, Nick held a press conference (his first interview directly with the press in several years) where he briefly touched on the record: “It’s dark,” gesturing to a journalist who had previously doubted his propensity for doom & gloom. “It’s really fucking dark,” he says with a smirk. He had recently completed his trilogy, held together by a common thread of his and his band’s evolving musical style. Arguably at the helm of this musical journey was Bad Seed Warren Ellis. Given their rich history of collaboration (within the Bad Seeds as well as through soundtrack work together over the past several decades) and this current period of Bad Seed-stasis (given that the Seeds are scattered across the globe), the two making a record in lockdown makes perfect sense.
Ellis’ contributions to the Bad Seeds have defined their current sound. Mysterious, atmospheric, and loose, his soundscapes provide an indelible backdrop to Cave’s evolving language of song. So hopefully you’ll understand why CARNAGE works so well as a collaborative album, without feeling like a side project. It’s welcomed with its heavier tracks that are louder than most of his recent trilogy, and while it’s dark as promised, it’s also beautiful and pristine with four ballads reining in the back half. The stylistic explorations amongst the songs, the sound design, and recurring lyrical themes make CARNAGE a terrifically cohesive package. Make no mistake: this is yet another career highlight in Cave’s discography.
The project begins on “Hand of God'' introducing lyrical themes of “who,” “why,” and the “kingdom in the sky” that weave in and out of the entire project. It’s set against twinkling pianos, but within seconds, this gives way in a dissonant glissando to thumping electronics. The string arrangements in the background keep the music suspenseful and sinister, as the robotic, distorted background vocals whir around exclaiming “hand of God.” Drawing on the gothic Americana theme of going down to the river, the lyrics may sound like an analogy for redemption or cleansing, but could just as well be something sexual. Cave’s vocal delivery maintains a powerful bluesy and sinister swagger, which continues on “Old Time” where Cave describes a dark nostalgia trip over a 6/8 beat pinned down by a thick synth bass. It’s a vivid journey of him following his lover, over top sparkling synthesizer washes, fuzzed out guitars, and splashes of dark orchestral strings; all performed by Warren with the frenzy of a mad scientist.
“Carnage”, the title track, sweeps us out of what we can confidently call Grinderman 2.5 territory, and back to the atmosphere of Ghosteen. Bells, pads, and piano anchor us down, as Cave’s voice reverts to the same softness he employed on ‘Waiting for You’ and ‘Galleon Ship’. The lyrics similarly adhere to a very Ghosteen sentiment too. This sombre mood is successfully embellished with a melodic synth line that becomes elevated on Warren’s soaring violin in the back half of the track.
The album’s centrepiece, “White Elephant”, may be one of the best songs Cave has written in this era. Over another sinister, slow thumping beat, with its pitched down and distorted drums and rattling sub-bass, Cave delivers his depiction of the fractured America. Beginning with the imagery of toppling statues, he sings in the most calm and deadpan tone from the point of view of a white “hunter” sitting on his porch. And while that first verse has incredibly strong lyrics, the man levels everything up a notch in the second:
“I am a Botticelli Venus with a penis/
Riding an enormous scalloped fan/
I’m a sea foam woman rising from the spray/
I’m coming to do you harm/
With the gun in my pants full of elephant tears/
And a seahorse on each arm”
The melting pot of Roman mythology, Renaissance art, zoology, and the white hunter from the first verse is almost psychedelic in its lyricism, and shows Cave at yet another peak. Soon, the doomy synths come pumping in, underscoring maniacally evil lyrics like “the president has called in the Feds,” “I’ve been planning this for years,” and “I’m a statue lying on my side… becoming a great grey cloud of wrath/ Roaring my salt upon the earth.” He’s channeling that darkness he’s known for in such a poignant way here, until the track implodes with a life-affirming drum roll leading into a soaring gospel outro. With Warren’s fuzzed out tenor guitar, the bombastic drums anchored down by tambourine, the rollicking piano, and layers upon layers of vocals, it’s a thunderous major key affirmation of the heavens. This doesn’t sound all too different from Abattoir Blues, or Grinderman’s “Palaces of Montezuma”, but with a little more of that ramshackle Beatles flair.
The back half of the album is filled with four incredibly diverse ballads. The synthesizer and piano-backed “Albuquerque” is a beautiful meditation on lockdown depression. But it also continues a tradition of Cave songs that fall somewhere between a Tom Waits ballad and a 1950s Disney-animation song (see his and Shane McGowan’s cover of “What a Wonderful World”, or his song “Lucy”). It’s in the simple chords and melody, and that dreamy piano and synth combo. Following this is “Lavender Fields”, a ballad that has Cave looking around at his place in the music world and his career at large. Its slow-pulsing layers of synths and strings create chords that softly breathe in and out. Cave talks about traveling a singular road, while Warren sings of familiar thematic notions in the background. It’s thematically important to the record, and one of the few songs that has Cave looking inward as a musician through an autobiographical lens.
We then finish with two more highlights. First is “Shattered Ground”, where Warren’s synths bring us to a scene of hurt and despair. Cave’s lines are blurted out, each with a momentum that begins with the fervour of love, and dissipates in the burnout of heartbreak. His moon metaphor is the centrepiece of the song, highlighting so many incredible lyrics. In that whole first verse alone, he chronicles a relationship from its serene beginnings to its very bitter end. His narrator sings with the desolation of someone saying goodbye for the final time. It’s a sad song about a vanishing love, and it’s one of Cave’s most passionate romantic pieces in years:
“Only you are beautiful, only you are true/
I don’t care what they are saying/
They can scream their fucking faces blue again”
Then “Balcony Man” plays out as a perfect closer. It’s a ballad that out-balladeers the last three tracks, and acts as a culmination of Nick and Warren’s “sound”. Spacey synths with roaming filters lay a blanket for the chord progression carrying Cave’s heartfelt voice, soon giving way to the piano. Cave’s baritone vibrato is a highlight of his delivery, and Warren’s backup falsetto vocals are as great as ever. And here, the lyrics employ everything that made the other songs so poetic, but it’s also perhaps a tonal shift for Cave. His writing shifts between sincerely warm and self-defeatist, but for the first time in a while, he’s also witty. I’ll always get a kick out of him singing about his “lap dancing shoes”. Yet the chant he sings throughout is just as heartfelt as his songs for his wife on Ghosteen. Here, Nick has become the Balcony Man; a man wisened by his love and loss, sharing his vulnerability with grace. The final couplet, presumably an address to his wife, leads to a piano and string outro accompanied by Cave’s hums. A true distillation of everything that is Nick and Warren’s “sound”.
In looking at CARNAGE as a whole, it’s clear that this record is a showcase of everything that’s great about Nick and Warren’s partnership. It’s all there: everything from Warren’s soft and aggressive sounds, to Nick’s poetic language of lyrics via both his sorrowful and commanding deliveries, to their ability to coalesce it all in something truly breathtaking. It’s the magic of their collaboration that makes this album an essential listen in Nick Cave’s catalogue. When I asked Nick that question in October of 2019, he had a great answer for me. He said “no, I couldn’t make the music I make now with them. With them, I was all [mimics on-time beat divisions], but with Warren, I’m like woah, [mimics floating in outer space].” On CARNAGE, we see the best of that.