In 2019, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds received some of the best reviews of their lengthy career for their 17th studio album, Ghosteen. They were poised to tour it the next year but Covid-19 put the kibosh on that and, like the rest of the world, they retreated into lockdown.
The rave notices for Ghosteen were remarkable, given the traumatic nature of the project. It was the first work Cave had conceived since the tragic sudden death of his teenage son Arthur in 2015: the album was essentially a harrowing meditation on grief, solace and survival.
Stymied by the pandemic, the restless Cave then teamed up with his musical foil in the Bad Seeds, Warren Ellis, to make a lockdown record, Carnage. The pair wrote its eight racked songs inside three days. “It just fell out of the sky,” Cave marvelled. “It was a gift.”
Shorn of the other Seeds, Cave and Ellis are now venturing out alone to debut the two albums. Visually, they’re a comedically mismatched pair. The suave Cave’s pipe-cleaner limbs are clad in the best Savile Row has to offer; Ellis sits on stage, extravagantly hirsute like an Old Testament prophet.
Cave has been through the wringer, and then some. A hugely moving documentary, One More Time With Feeling, filmed in the wake of Arthur’s death, captured a numb, empty-eyed figure unable to process his loss. Cave was, he admitted, incapable of finding a way through.
Such trauma never expires, but tonight Cave once again has a notable strut in his step, plus flashes of mordant wit. “They didn’t last long!” he comments as two people head for the exit, three songs in, then reads their invisible thought bubble: “Oh no, he’s playing that Ghosteen shit!”
Even before Ghosteen, Cave had been moving away from epic narrative songs in favour of extemporising lyrics over Ellis’s electronic effects and loops. This could be regrettable, since he has written some of the greatest epic narrative songs in the modern rock canon.
This new freeform compositional approach does produce some gems. Cave’s rich baritone is pitch-perfect on the sparse, haunting Night Raid. White Elephant’s vivid imagery (“I’ll shoot you in the fucking face!”) suggests the inner monologue of a Capitol-storming QAnon crazy.
His words are a poet’s mix of allegory and autobiography yet can be so raw that you wince. “Nothing really matters when the one you love is gone,” croons Cave, spotlit at a grand piano, during I Need You. “Just breathe…” He appears close to tears, and he’s not the only one.
The music is serene, nuanced and beautiful but lacks the melodramatic seizures and eruptions of Bad Seeds shows. It can drag, a little. Even a rare foray into Cave’s back catalogue, with 2012’s Higgs Boson Blues, is drawn from the more lugubrious end of his repertoire. It’s a relief when Ellis transforms into a cheerleading rag doll for Carnage’s thrilling Hand of God, as Cave jackknifes to its throbbing pulse on the lip of the stage like the born showman he is.
Cave is back at his piano for the set’s closer, Balcony Man, written on the Brighton-home balcony where he spent most of lockdown. Its hushed angst (“What am I to believe? When everything is ordinary until it’s not?”) yields to a rousing, life-affirming chorus: “This morning is amazing, and so are you!”
The implicit message is a stirring conclusion to a tumultuous evening. Whether exiting a global pandemic, or unspeakable personal trauma, love and companionship are the answer. Nick Cave has found a way through.