Culture Trips

Nick Cave and Warren Ellis: Carnage review – the firebrand returns | Nick Cave

It’s been some time since a swaggering Nick Cave has threatened his listeners with violence. Cave’s last record, 2019’s Ghosteen, mourned the sudden loss of his teenage son Arthur with a gut-howl of grief and a parade of horses, boats, suns, young children and Buddhist folk tales, all wrapped up in violinist Warren Ellis’s keening sounds.

But midway through this surprise 18th studio album – recorded last year without the majority of the Bad Seeds, but with Ellis as general vibes-bringer – Cave’s protagonist wants to “shoot you in the fuckin’ face”, repeatedly, “just for fun”. These are threats backed up by the skulk of White Elephant’s electronic bassline, the clank of its percussion and Ellis’s ever-tightening garotte of strings.

This Nick Cave feels like the ne’er-do-well seasoned Cave-watchers haven’t heard much from of late. (The Old Testament is not far off either: the “hand of God” plays a starring role on this album’s opening track.) A sense of deja vu haunts parts of this exhilarating record – disorienting, but pleasurable. Echoing his priapic Grinderman albums of the 00s, Cave strikes more arresting poses on White Elephant: “Botticelli’s Venus with a penis riding an enormous scalloped fan.”

The image is absurdist, almost playful, but full of metaphysical fury too, as Cave’s “gun” sprays out “elephant tears” at a plethora of targets. This is a record tinged with recent history, which feeds into the spinning vortex of Cavean concerns that collapses distant and recent pasts. A protester kneels on the neck of a statue, then kicks it into the sea. The yearning on a track called Albuquerque speaks of many things, including lockdown. “And we won’t get to anywhere/ Anytime this year, darling,” sighs Cave.

Throughout, his strobe of images and emotion feels wonderfully wild. It is, in fact, writerly. White Elephant’s carousel of vivid props – guns, tears, elephants, ice, salt – comes round repeatedly, its emphasis altered every time. At the close of the record, Balcony Man also remixes certain core elements: ice, dancing shoes, the morning sun. Both are microcosms of the greater album. Throughout all eight tracks, lyrics refer back to each other within songs, but also across the track listing. More than one character throws their bags into a car, hoping to get away. Lust in long-ago motel rooms rubs up against present sorrow. The title track itself harks backwards self-referentially to a time when Cave was heavily into Flannery O’Connor, reading her “with a pencil and a plan”.

Great as it is to visit with the old retributionist firebrand, any hope of getting through a contemporary Cave album without ugly-crying into your hands is not to be. Carnage was clearly made in the same creative breath as Ghosteen. We remain in the grip of Cave’s loss and its fractal of consequences – a haunt enabled further by Ellis at the peak of his powers.

A few bars into Hand of God, a delicious blare of dissonance cuts across Cave’s words. The remainder of these magnificently austere strings recall the late, avant-garde albums of Scott Walker. Wherever Cave’s words go, Ellis is there with a numinous counterpoint or a thrum of dread; he supplies the aural equivalent of monosodium glutamate, intensifying Cave. Presumably, summoning a quorum of Bad Seeds – Cave’s excellent band – must have proved impossible to achieve last year. You look forward to hearing them playing these songs live.

As with Ghosteen, immense grief and vast love are ever present. The title track is full of melancholy, with what seems like a cameo of Ghosteen imagery: “the sun, a child with fire in its hair”.

Throughout, Cave hints repeatedly at the great beyond, and how near it really is. “Wherever you are darling,” he sings on Old Time, “I’m not that far behind.” There is an echo here, perhaps, of the late Leonard Cohen’s words to the dying Marianne Ihlen: “I’m just a little behind you, close enough to take your hand.”

That “kingdom in the sky” is a recurring feature of Carnage. Introduced on Hand of God, it comes back on White Elephant, when the song unexpectedly turns into a gospel singalong. It recurs also on the stately, hovering Lavender Fields, which seeks to make sense of the path Cave is travelling.

“People ask me how I changed, I say it is a singular road,” he confides. And this singular artist is not the sort of songwriter to tie everything up with a bow to make the listener feel better, either. His parting words, on Balcony Man? An update on Nietzsche: “What doesn’t kill you just makes you crazier.”

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