After the bleakness in the parts of Skeleton Tree touched directly by his son Arthur’s death, and the desolate grief of the accompanying documentary One More Time with Feeling, this is Nick Cave’s statement of faith. Ghosteen is unlike any record he’s made before, often sung in a desperate, reckless, heedless, loving voice unheard till now. If his heart has had to be torn open to reveal its varieties of vulnerability – the bereft croon and shaking falsetto on “Spinning Song”, the absolutely lovelorn, unabashed full-heartedness of “Bright Horses” – they remain remarkable sounds. The chiselled lyrics of latter-day Cave, the sober working writer, meanwhile retain their craft, but feel illuminated.
A faint comet-trail of guitar seems to pass across the opening of “Sun Forest”, but otherwise there’s little sign of rock. Warren Ellis is Cave’s main collaborator, synth washes, loops, some piano and strings the ambient cradle for these songs. The man who recently said that atheism is no friend of the songwriter peoples them with ghost children, blazing animals, surely his wife Susie (“In the back room washing his clothes, love’s like that you know”), and God.
That last relationship has been Cave’s most intellectually complex and slippery. Here he simply releases himself into belief in a wondrous, supernal existence, a realm where many artists, religious or not, feel at home. It anyway makes more liveable sense than the alternative. “And we’re all so sick and tired of seeing things as they are… Oh, this world is plain to see,” he sings in the defining passage of “Bright Horses”. “It don’t mean we can’t believe – and anyway, my baby’s coming back now.” If that baby is arriving on the train of a thousand blues songs, the child he lost also returns over and over, in visions and metaphors, and some kind of actuality. The New Testament promises (“I am beside you… look for me”) and crooned incantations of “Ghosteen Speaks” suggest near incarnation as a holy ghost.
Cave’s invigorated release from dismay finally allows the three long songs on Ghosteen’s second disc, the mysterious, nocturnal wander of “Hollywood” especially, which suggests yet another new writing freedom. It’s been a long, difficult path from The Birthday Party, and if the aesthetic quality of Ghosteen’s gusher of love seems hard, even irrelevant, to judge, Cave is back on firm, high ground.