In Awe of Ghosteen
I’m currently listening to Ghosteen by Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds. I’ve never been a big Nick Cave fan. I didn’t dislike his music. I appreciated its mastery, but I didn’t feel it. It seemed dark to me, not my preferred vibe.
Ghosteen, however, feels like a gateway back into his music. I first listened to this album two and a half weeks ago, and it’s been on regular rotation since.
Here’s the truth: If someone that I respect recommends a piece of music, I’ll seek it out. If that endorsement comes from another musician whose work I admire, I will pay attention and pursue it. Twitter is handy in this way.
Time and place …..Often, what resonates with us is what we need.
It might be the time and place I’m in in the greater context of my life. Often, what resonates with us is what we need, or it’s affected by our headspace. Music balances us out.
My teen angst album in the early-90s was Joni Mitchell’s Blue. Some people like their angst music loud and thrashy. Some people like it quiet and chill. (Or both, at different times.)
My headspace these days
- Religiously curious
I’ve been reading a lot about Old and New Testaments. Being raised Jewish in the Hebrew school system with all the “OG” stories, I’ve recently learned some biblical stories that I feel I should have taught myself years ago. At the same time, I feel like I discovered the stories at the right time. It’s only in the last couple of years or so that I haven’t cringed when meditation leaders mention “Jesus”, “Mary”, or, most of all, “Christ”. It’s been part of my overall personal development and education.
2. Feeling idealistic
I find myself journaling about love and heaven and hope and optimism. I’ve been writing poetry for the first time in more than a couple of decades. It’s as if in a neighbourhood of my mind, my second half of life (as I enter my mid-40s) is a throwback to younger times, but with more wisdom. Dreams that I forgot I had have returned. I’ve begun finding pieces of myself that I thought I’d lost or forgot existed.
Incorporating the two: Several months ago, I pulled my small copy of Song of Songs off the bookshelf. I’ve kept it on my bedside table, occasionally reading a passage.
Ghosteen has a beautiful album cover, gorgeous music and poetic lyrics. I don’t know a lot about music, but I know that those chord progressions are special.
Vivid cover art
According to a review of the album in The Guardian,
The album’s vivid cover art…is a kitsch paradise by the artist Tom du Bois in which flamingos frolic and lions lie down with lambs, signalling a radical change of emotional landscape for the Bad Seeds.
According to Wikipedia, the title of the painting is The Breath of Life. From the research I’ve done, it appears to be part of his Noah’s Ark series. The Art Gallery of the Rockies shows a similar painting with that name, with this description:
…depicting Adam, from the Bible, in the Garden of Eden, surrounded by the animals and lush trees and plants. A very peaceful image. The corners of the image have an ornate design and in the lower margin is a Bible quote from Genesis, which can be incorporated in the framing.
Perhaps the empath in me connects with that “radical change of emotional landscape”. Maybe some part of me connects with the Garden of Eden. Or it could be simple as liking pretty colors such as those of flowers, pink flamingoes and blue water.
I‘m not an expert in technical musical language, so the Guardian review might best articulate what sets the music of Ghosteen apart for me:
…Ghosteen completes a trilogy of records connected by their sound: Push the Sky Away (2013), Skeleton Tree and Ghosteen are all keening, subliminally orchestral works, swirling with electronic mood music; they supersede the rock format and solo piano of previous Bad Seeds or Cave solo works, underscoring the cornerstone presence of violinist Warren Ellis, who also provides revelatory backing vocals.
I have listened to Push the Sky Away and Skeleton Tree in the last couple of weeks and felt the music in me. These albums reach a place in me that tends to remain beyond awareness.
The music touches a place deep in me, feeding an area of my soul that I didn’t know needed satisfying. I don’t know if I’m clearly articulating the feeling here, but you either understand it or you don’t.
The poetic lyrics
…a double album about a wandering spirit in which Cave invokes the gravitas of the late Leonard Cohen and the hoarse, harsh beauty of latterday Scott Walker.
I mean, Leonard Cohen. I understand that comparison. I’ve read his poetry. I’ve heard his albums. There are many cover versions of Hallelujah, some of which are particularly moving. As a Canadian Jew, consuming Cohen’s art almost seems to be a requirement. I’m unaware of Scott Walker and feel it’s best to not wander down that internet rabbit hole right now, lest I lose my focus on the words in front of me. I will be tabling that one for later.
As I said earlier, I’ve written some poetry recently, also some lyrics. Yesterday I wrote a poem that I think is so damn good and maybe needs to be shared, but I don’t want to put my name on it because it narrates a part of me that I don’t want to show the world yet.
GAH — those lyrics
Listening to this album lead me to read the lyrics online while the songs played. The lyrical composition of the songs is heartbreaking — or at least, heart-affecting, if we want to avoid hyperbole. I feel narrowly cracked open, and I needed it. “Narrowly” might seem like a strange adjective, but I’ve been working on myself. Another day, I might feel emotionally destroyed.
The album, Ghosteen, begins with the words, “Once there was a song / The song yearned to be sung.” (The Spinning Song.)
Immediately, that cuts into that deep place. It’s surgery. He’s got a song that wants to be sung. Don’t we all? Don’t we all have yearnings?
The next song, Bright Horses, uses the metaphor of free horses and the following words:
“And everyone has a heart and it’s calling for something / And we are all so sick and tired of seeing things as they are.”
Again, that yearning.
Maybe it’s my own yearning that’s pulling me to these lyrics, instead of focusing on other ones. I believe that the words that our ears pick out and that resonate with us are those we need to hear. Again I say: Often, what resonates with us is what we need, or it’s affected by our headspace.
Next month or next year, I might notice other parts of the songs more prominently, and I’ll pay attention.
The romance of Sun Forest is heart-affecting:
There is nothing more valuable than beauty, they say, there is nothing more valuable than love and I lie amongst the leaves and the burning trees and the fields of smoke and the black butterflies and the screaming horses and your bright green eyes so beautiful, your bright green eyes, so beautiful.
The trembling of his voice as he sings stirs up many emotions. Pain and awe and appreciation and light and dark. This song is a magnet for empaths.
Ghosteen, the song
The jolt of his reference to the Three Bears fairy tale (no mention of Goldilocks) is a dream-like contrast, but the analogy of love “like a tidal flow” in the next verse brings it back. A fierce love. A love like those in other fairy tales. The jolt feels to me like a question of, “Hey, are you paying attention?”
There’s no doubt that each song contributes to a musical book of poetry (album) to tell a story that’s both serial and episodic. You can listen to any song and have it make sense, but when you listen to it from start to finish, you hear — and might even imagine — the golden thread that connects all the stories in one unit and therefore have a slightly different experience. The album is the container for what can be a profound experience, not just with this collection of music, but with any.
Songs of love, yearning, death and sorrow.
Ghosteen is the first album Cave has written and recorded entirely since the death of his teenage son, Arthur, in 2015.
While I listen to a lot of playlists, I still do listen to full “albums”. If you buy a physical vinyl album or CD, you are literally receiving the container for the songs. It almost makes me wonder if I deny myself a part of the experience by only consuming digital media.
The album’s final words:
And I’m just waiting now for peace to come
For peace to come
Grayson Haver Currin, who reviewed the album for Pitchfork, called the album “sublime”. I agree. I am in awe.
This post is a 33-word tweet turned into a 1700-word essay.
Seriously, I don’t know music. I’m so uneducated about it. I feel unqualified to post about music and even to submit this to a music publication. And yet, I can relate to more poetic music because I thrived in English class. I learned and retained concepts of poetry and storytelling. Furthermore, because of my Mass Communications degree, I almost referenced Marshall McLuhan’s phrase, “The medium is the message.” I feel like doing so would make this too academic.
Regardless, I hope this affects you in some way.