This isn’t an album review; there are plenty of those already out there. I actually waited to get a hard copy of Ghosteen, even though it’s been. available on-line for over a month. As usual, I love product ‘packaging’, in this case the much discussed ‘kitschy’ cover and the enclosed lyric sheet. Cave and his Seeds seventeenth studio outing, taken along with their live and soundtrack material, on top of The Birthday Party and Grinderman, is one more contribution to one of the most significant bodies of work in the rock canon. So, I’d just like to make a short set of observations about Cave and his not-so-merry men.
The key discussion point, for me. is whether it is appropriate to who demonstrated a kinship with the techniques of Tsplit The Bad Seeds into two periods of productivity; the Blixa Bargeld/Mick Harvey era, and that of the ‘Warren Ellis period’? Harvey, a multi-instrumentalist, and Bargeld, a guitarist who demonstrated a kinship with the techniques of The Birthday Party’s late Rowland S. Howard, formed an obvious linkage to Cave’s first band. Ellis was a veteran of the Aussie trio The Dirty Three, another multi-instrumentalist, specialising in violin and keyboards’ joined as a junior member of the Seeds in time for 1997′s The Boatman’s Call (which still gets my vote for their greatest work, 12 short songs of immense emotional concision and depth). By the time of Ghosteen, Ellis has become the band’s musical director-in-chief, all keyboard washes and choral backgrounds, church-like in their accompaniment to Cave’s songs of innocence and experience, loss and redemption.
These two proposed incarnations of The Bad Seeds are very different beasts indeed (only Thomas Wydler and Martin Casey remain from the pre-1997 period). It is interesting to follow on-line discussion between Cave obsessives as to the changes that the band has gone through since 1984 and From Her to Eternity. These changes have been gradual and organic. Bargeld left at the cusp of the millenium (the albums of this period, 2001′s No More Shall We Part and Noctorama from 2003 are, coincidentally, the band’s two weakest, imho). Harvey lasted till 2008 and Dig Lazurus Dig!!!, another rather ho-hum affair, which produced few memorable tracks. 2004′s double, Abbatoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus (comparable to Tom Waits’s contemporary pairing of Alice and Blood Money?), and 2013′s Push the Sky Away are The Bad Seeds 2.0 most outstanding records for me. None, however, approach The Boatman’s Call, 1996′s Let Love In (which seems to be the dedicated Cave fan’s overall fave, from what I can ascertain) or Tender Prey (1988), my own particular introductory portal into the band’s universe.
Without labouring the point, the death of Cave’s teenage son in 2015 was a caesura of incalculable importance for the music of his band, without even considering its effects on his lyrics. He doesn’t seem to have recorded an up-tempo composition since the tragedy, andante seeming to be the fastest pace that he can consider. As a consequence, both 2016′s Skeleton Tree and now Ghosteen might be emotionally consonant with Cave’s state of being and are albums of remarkably moving maturity, but as works of art they can both be recondite and rather monolithic. Understandably, Cave’s previously healthy sense of irony and humour have been largely sublimated. The portrait of the naked woman on the cover of Push the Sky Away now appears to be both flippant and prelapsarian from today’s perspective. One can only attempt to empathise with Cave’s loss and Ghosteen is a devastating listen, but inevitably things can never be as they were in musical terms. We can only be grateful that Cave is still as creative as ever, especially as Tom Waits seems to have retired (Bad As Me came out as far back as 2011), the only other rock writer from their generation that can hold a candle up to the quantity and quality of the Australian’s output.