Ghosteen finds prolific songwriter Nick Cave a few years after the release of 2016’s devastating Skeleton Tree, recorded during the aftermath of his teenage son’s unexpected death. Tree was heartbreaking from front to back, enlisting a minimal electronic sound palette that provided a backdrop to Cave’s grievous vocal wallowing. It was an entirely unique listening experience only comparable to the band’s prior discography and perhaps David Bowie’s Blackstar. Ghosteen, surprise announced and billed as the final entry in the trilogy of 2013’s Push The Sky Away and Skeleton Tree, had left fans, including myself, anticipating a brighter outlook in the aftermath of intense grief.
While some aspects of Ghosteen enlist organic, orchestral, and more maximal instrumentation, many others sound draw elements from Tree’s whirring electronic underbelly: a possible signaling towards the parasitic and incurable aspects of intense sorrow. There is also a significant amount of singing on the album, finding Cave stretching into a high-pitched, near-falsetto performance on many instances. Background vocals also appear across the brighter first half of the album, adding to the impact of the near spoken-word storytelling. While Cave was the lone vocalist for much of Tree, save for the excellent “Distant Sky” with Else Torp, he now has some semblance of a musical support network.
I found “Galleon Ship” to be the most immediately striking track, appearing directly after the choir-like crescendo of “Sun Forest”. The instrumental of “Ship” has elements of Skeleton Tree’s signature electronica, added to with a tasteful piano and distorted, dream-like vocals. Cave calls out, to a now unreachable loved one, “And if we rise, my love, Oh my darling precious one, We’ll stand and watch the galleon ships”. “Hollywood”, the closing track and longest on the record, is another emotional highlight. The rising instrumentation is a mix of muted synths and guitar strumming, slowly building with the two passages Cave expels on the track. The first feels right out of 1992’s Murder Ballads, addressing themes of the inevitability of death and revenge, while the second is a retelling of a traditional Buddhist story on Kisa Gotami regarding the death of a child.
Cave’s artistic expression on Ghosteen is just as grim, personal, and significant as the rest of his discography. While I wish some tracks had gone on longer in lieu of others, especially “Galleon Ship” and “Fireflies”, it’s a powerful listen that will take some time to fully unpack. Its not the complete musical “light at the end of the tunnel” that fans of Cave may have been expecting, instead something much more morose, realistic, and human.