One of 2019’s best albums offers solace, compassion

After Nick Cave’s son died in 2015, he found comfort in expressing empathy toward others. His band’s new album “Ghosteen” continues that theme.

Rich Fury/Invision/AP/File
Nick Cave performs at The Theatre at Ace Hotel in Los Angeles on April 7, 2015.

When Nick Cave’s teenage son tumbled from a cliff to his death in 2015, few would have been surprised if the songwriter had retreated from public life. The enigmatic rock star – who radiates a glowering intensity – already seemed to live in the shadows. A pioneer of literary gothic rock, he famously wears his signature black suit even when composing lyrics on a typewriter. 

What Mr. Cave did next took longtime observers by surprise: He started talking to fans. Mr. Cave’s correspondence via his (mature content) website, The Red Hand Files, includes loving letters to individuals dealing with loneliness and body-positivity issues. By the musician’s own account, the death of his son awakened within him “a deep feeling toward other people.” This fall, the lanky Australian undertook a solo piano and audience Q&A tour – and stuck around after shows to sign autographs. 

The latest release by Mr. Cave and his band, The Bad Seeds, continues that outreach. “Ghosteen,” one of the most critically acclaimed albums of 2019, is about Arthur Cave’s death. Some songs play like photo albums of the family’s life before (a snapshot of them leaning out of a hotel window to watch horses in the street) and after (an image of Arthur’s grieving mother washing her son’s clothes). Yet rather than wallowing in myopic self-pity, “Ghosteen” offers a perspective of universal empathy. A recurring lyrical theme is that everybody has lost somebody. As Mr. Cave sings in “Galleon Ship”: “For we are not alone it seems / So many riders in the sky / The winds of longing in their sails / Searching for the other side.” 

Mr. Cave’s baritone switches between tender crooning and speak-singing in a manner similar to Johnny Cash’s. On “Ghosteen,” his emotions are foregrounded against chiaroscuro electronics. There’s plenty of sorrow. Yet the album is often jubilant. He sees life as continuing after death. As he puts it on “Fireflies,” “I am here and you are where you are.” 

The songwriter, a theist who’s written about being profoundly influenced by the Gospel of Mark, searches biblical teachings in the lyrics. The answers don’t come easily. Still, he surmises on “Waiting for You,” “sometimes a little bit of faith can go a long, long way.” “Ghosteen” finds more immediate solace in expressions of love in the here and now. 

“If there is sadness in Ghosteen, perhaps it is the recognition that we are often blind to the splendour of the world,” Mr. Cave wrote to a fan, explaining his desire to create an uplifting album. “Its beauty is available to all, if only we had eyes to see.”

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