Album Reviews

Nick Cave & Warren Ellis: Carnage – “the understanding of life and death”

The formidable duo present a crushing set of songs with their first non-soundtrack collaboration.

And you’re waving goodbye/She is waving goodbye/The moon is a girl with the sun in her eyes/Goodbye/goodbye/goodbye,” sings Nick Cave on Shattered Ground.

Today marks 3 years since the death of my wife and the above passage is one of the many lines that stirs the dread.

Two days after her sudden passing in 2018, I found myself reacquainted with the raw open wound of Skeleton Tree. Suffice to say, it has been with me periodically since. Any fan of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds who has suffered a similar trauma would be the same, I’m sure.

And while the ‘surprise’ release of Carnage – the first non-soundtrack collaboration between Nick Cave and Warren Ellis – arrived last Thursday morning, it was anything but [a surprise] to me. As strange as this sounds, it was almost expected, like some charlatan spirit finding its way back into this world.

Initially, I was hesitant to use my wife’s passing as a reference point in this piece. It felt wrong to glamorise such personal events. However, pain and art have always intersected and, as we know, that’s where the best art is found. So, on reflection, musings like this are perhaps no more capricious than being caught up in the marshes of social media and the littering of heart emojis…

Since Blixa Bargeld‘s departure from the Bad Seeds in 2003, the Cave/Ellis alliance has grown fiercer with every release. Ellis, a purveyor of pure sonic splendour, initially showcased as the driving force of the Dirty Three.

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There were some clues that he and Cave had been working up to something of Carnage’s magnitude. Take Ghosteen‘s linear notes, for instance. No accompanying Bad Seeds are in sight – just Cave and Ellis, both suited and booted, meandering along the shores of Brighton.

The aural bedding Ellis has provided during Cave’s last three albums, Push the Sky Away, the landmark Skeleton Tree, and 2019’s Ghosteen has been integral, his obsessive noodling adding the necessary emotional gravity that Cave’s songs command. The understanding of life and death with heartbreaking stories of loss, grief and coming out the other side of it.

With Carnage, the pair combine for all three and it starts from the off with Hand of God as Cave sing-speaks, “There are some people trying to find out who/There are some people trying to find out why/There are some people who aren’t trying to find anything…”

On Ghosteen there were strong suggestions that Cave was coming out the other side of grief after the passing of his son, Arthur, in 2015. While that is very much the process of bereavement (as I suspect with most life-changing traumas), it’s just as easy to find yourself being pulled back into that crippling, hazardous world. That world of screaming turbulence where the pictures are as distorted as ever and you have no control.

For the most part, that’s what listening to Carnage feels like. It triggers that withering emotional pain that has been festering in the pits of your stomach for months, ultimately bringing it to the surface.

Nick Cave & Warren Ellis - Carnage

“My moon in the night sky, with pale eyes/And pale skin and long hair covering her naked body/And sometimes she’s laughing and sometimes she’s crying/And sometimes the moon is talking to nobody,” begins Cave on the aforementioned Shattered Ground – the kind of song that feels like it has been exclusively written for you. It’s and a song that rivals Cave‘s best work.

Again, it’s no surprise – it’s the kind of moment that makes you draw a wry chuckle before the wellspring of tears follow. With Ellis‘ hymnal-like atmospherics, he and Cave create something equally devastating and beautiful and the vivid imagery that a song like this illuminates is something that will forever taint the soul.

Carnage evokes a lot of this imagery, but not to such literal depths as Shattered Ground.

White Elephant is a ridiculous haphazard gospel-punk-like stomp, combining looping down-tempo beats with southern gospel reverence as Cave threatens to “shoot you in the fuckin’ face”.

With the album’s bookend in Balcony Man running it close, White Elephant is Carnage‘s outlier, providing the necessary relief during an otherwise perilous journey.

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The title track for instance, containing the chorus of, “And it’s only love with a little bit of rain/And I hope to see you again.”

Then there’s the beautiful duo of Albuquerque – a sparkling orchestral cut that puts self-editing and lockdown under the microscope – and the gorgeous waltz of Lavender Fields. Both are seamless and immediate. On the latter, Cave‘s poeticism remains as sharp, rich and jarring as ever, stirring up the urge to chase ghosts, as he sings, “And Sometimes I hear my name, oh where did you go?/But the lavender is broad and it’s a singular road.”

Perhaps the most revealing moment on Carnage arrives earlier with the fractured bluesy Old Time.

“The trees are black and history has dragged us down to our knees/In a cold time/Ah, everyone’s dreams have died/Wherever you are, darling, I’m not that far behind/I’m not that far behind.”

Only time will tell whether Carnage is a masterpiece. The Cave/Ellis alliance doesn’t possess that friction and yin and yang of the greatest songwriters in music history. That’s what makes their partnership even more frightening and indeed, beautiful. Just two mates, creating.

Overall, engaging with Carnage is like getting swept back into the emotional blast zone where, as Cave sings on Ghosteen’s title track, “You’re sitting on the edge of the bed, smoking and shaking your head.”

If that’s what defines a high-watermark then Carnage is very much that.

Nick Cave & Warren Ellis’ Carnage is out now via Goliath Enterprises Limited.

By Simon Kirk

Product from the happy generation. Proud purple bin owner surviving on music, books and LFC. New book, Welcome To Charmsville, available from all major vendors.

23 replies on “Nick Cave & Warren Ellis: Carnage – “the understanding of life and death””

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